Communities

Cooperative In-Class Writing with Google Docs

Jim Trostle

How can we help contemporary college students employ their multi-tasking and tech-savvy skills while pursuing the more venerable scholarly goals of discussion and documentation? Based on my own experience of research collaboration with my peers, I offer one possible strategy: cooperative writing using Google Documents. For more than a decade I have been part of an interdisciplinary and international team studying the effects of social change upon human health. Given the size and complexity of our topic, our papers tend to have multiple authors. The form of our collaboration evolved from multiple iterations of documents sent around on e-mail, to phone conversations and face-to-face meetings where each researcher had a computer window open to the same document. Later we made manuscript changes page by page using the Microsoft Word “Track Changes” feature. Our collaboration on research documents moved forward in 2008 when we began to use Google Docs to post documents to the web to facilitate exchanges. In 2011 we had four co-authors in a seminar room at the University of Michigan, all simultaneously editing and viewing changes on the same document. This last step offered the precedent for my classroom experiment.

The process was exhilarating. Google Docs editing is efficient (we avoided at least a few rounds of consecutive edits), but more importantly it offered our research team the opportunity to shape our ideas publicly instead of privately.  One of us would claim, “We need a sentence here to introduce this next idea.” Another would reply, “How about this one?” while simultaneously writing a draft sentence.  And a third might silently follow along with a cursor just behind the author’s new words, cleaning up.  I felt sometimes like we were elephants on parade, dropping words behind us, with the sweeper tidying up at the end. But the joys of the exercise were that we were all authors and all readers and all editors; false starts and new beginnings could take place before our (collective) eyes.

A Classroom Experiment with Google Docs

In the spring of 2013 I decided to test this public editing approach with my Introduction to Anthropology course at Trinity College. While Google Docs had been a great tool for research collaboration with my peers, I had a lot of questions about how the experience of using it would translate for students in the classroom. Forty students were enrolled in the course, half freshmen, a quarter sophomores, and the rest juniors and seniors.  It was late in the semester, and we were doing a small unit on digital culture. Would public writing in groups during class stimulate or burden discussion? Would public writing produce a usable document or trash? Would a document represent a group or one highly motivated individual? Was this a reasonable way to help students prepare for a final exam, produce useful study materials, and give them some experience with new digital technologies?

In order to answer these questions, I developed an exercise using Google Docs as a platform for students to complete the activity. Before class, I emailed a set of five questions to all students, each with a web link to a publicly accessible Google Document, which appeared as follows:

Anthro 201 Questions for GoogleDoc exercise: One numbered question (Q1-Q5) per group, plus one for all. But don’t work on this til the class starts please. You don’t yet know what group you’ll be in, and we’ll need to review the “rules of the game” together.  (Not to mention seeing whether the experiment works!) — Jim

Q.1: We’ve spent a good part of the second half of this semester reading and thinking about how anthropology is adapting so that it can study people and objects in motion. Give at least two examples of this, with your own evaluation of how successful anthropology has been in this study. Link to Google Doc Q.1.[1]

Q.2: Fairly early in the course we discussed the importance of words and vocabulary in conveying certain cultural messages and in preserving culture through time (remember the Duden?). Pick two different words and make this argument about each one.  The words should come from the course readings or from issues we have discussed in the course. Link to Google Doc Q.2.[2]

Q.3 Throughout the semester I have been arguing that culture provides a set of specific adaptive advantages to specific ecological environments (mountains, desert, islands, altitude, land quality, etc.). Choose two environments, choose one or two specific cultural adaptations to those environments, and make the argument. Link to Google Doc Q.3.[3]

Q.4 We have read and discussed many examples of anthropologists getting things wrong (at least at first) and learning from their errors. Give two examples of works we read that analyzed fieldwork experiences in this way, and discuss how the authors made sense (or learned something) from their mistakes. Link to Google Doc Q.4.[4]

Q.5 We have read and discussed many contemporary examples of how culture at once constrains us and frees us. Many of these examples were within the domain of social stratification. Choose two types of social stratification and discuss how culture constrains and frees human behavior related to that stratification. Link to Google Doc Q.5.[5]

Q.All. Here we are at the end of the semester. I’ve been asking you to write questions for each reading all semester long. Here’s your last chance: What is the most important question about anthropological knowledge or research that you have at this point? Link to Google Doc Q.All.[6]

Students were told that they would be asked to construct their answers jointly during class, and advised that these answers would remain available to all as part of their preparation for the final exam. (The questions were explicitly described as similar in form, though not in content, to some of the essay questions on the final.)

At the beginning of class I spent about 10 minutes explaining steps and goals, noting that they would be working in five groups of seven to eight students each:

  1. Groups were organized by counting off by five, assigned their question, and chairs were rearranged (5 minutes).
  2. Students opened their particular question on Google Docs. (It immediately became apparent that no more than four or five people in each group, 20-25 in all, could keep a reliable internet connection to the document and move easily around in it.  I therefore asked members of each group to take turns writing or editing.)
  3. Students first discussed how to answer the question (5 minutes), then began to do so with concurrent discussion and writing (30 minutes). I sometimes circulated among groups to answer questions during this time.
  4. Each group’s final product was reviewed on-screen with the whole class, and clarifying questions were asked of the authors of each document (10 minutes).
  5. I led a discussion of the exercise to get student feedback (10 minutes).

Technical Issues

I asked every student to bring a laptop to class to complete this particular assignment. I worried that our electrical or bandwidth use might overwhelm the classroom, so I brought multiple extension cords and checked with our academic computing staff in advance to assess the system load. They thought it might be slow but were not completely sure.

In order to document and learn from the exercise, I placed a video camera on a tripod at the front of the classroom to record discussion groups or projected images of the questions posted on Google Docs, and explained the camera’s purpose to the students.

Click to open: Short video clip from early stage of classroom discussion during the writing exercise.

Click to open: Short video clip from early stage of classroom discussion during the writing exercise.

Click to open: Short video clip from early stage of classroom discussion during the writing exercise.

Video frame from early stage of classroom discussion during the writing exercise.

Note in the videos that the student roles vary and switch, and with some conversing while others are composing and editing their common text. These behaviors change through time, and they are visible in the first video clip above of the early stage of classroom discussion, as well as the second video clip of the projected writing from one of the group’s emerging documents, and the third video clip of writing-in-progress across all five group documents.[7]

In the Classroom

During the document discussion/writing period I flipped among the different documents on the screen at the front of the room. This gave all the students a sense of how other group’s documents were taking shape.  Nonetheless, different groups made different types of documents – some produced finished essays, some discussion points and references, and other groups created a document with some of both.

The class discussion itself sounded and looked a bit muted compared to prior small group discussions without computers present. After the initial flurry of excited exchanges, participation slowed. I think this is because some students in each group were focused on writing instead of speaking, and vice versa. The conversation dynamic may also have been different because students were dividing their attention between the developing document on the computer screen in front of them and to students who were speaking, and because some were unable to post or edit because of bandwidth constraints. (The video camera at the front of the classroom plus the single document projected on the classroom screen also were distracting.) Overall the quality of the writing seemed better than that produced by multiple iterations among multiple authors in a cooperative group.  It was certainly faster.  A major difference from other web-based writing processes (such as blogs, wikis, or discussion threads) is that student discussion and documentation are happening simultaneously, with each ideally helping to focus the other.

I did not attempt to grade student participation either as authors or discussants during this exercise.  My objective was to improve the review process for the final, not to create a proto-final itself. Google Docs is not an ideal platform for assessing individual contributions and changes to a group document, though it can be used for this purpose (see other essays in this section for comparison). In the future, were I to assign groups to document their discussions out of the classroom in this fashion, I would be inclined to emphasize that I wanted to see evidence that all had contributed to the final document, and would show them the Google Docs features that allows this to take place.

Student Feedback

Our evaluation discussion in the last 10 minutes of class showed strong support for the exercise. Students felt it was a novel way to collaborate with their peers and said things like “making you write stuff down, at least in bullet points, and seeing it on a page, is helpful.”  They thought it was an effective way to review material in groups, and a valuable way to prepare for writing final exam essays. They were slightly frustrated by the slow connection speed, saying it reduced their engagement in the exercise, and suggested that when I do this exercise again that I should use a college computer lab rather than a classroom. Most seemed happy with the group size of around six to seven per group.

Conclusion

In 2002, anthropologists reviewing literature on the study of digital culture argued that, “Despite early assessments of the revolutionary nature of the Internet and the enormous transformations it would bring about, the changes have been less dramatic and more embedded in existing practices and power relations of everyday life.”[8] In contrast, in 2008 an anthropologist named Michael Wesch argued that web-based platforms like YouTube “allow us to connect in ways we never have before.”  He said this in a video called “An anthropological introduction to YouTube” that five years later has been downloaded almost two million times.[9] Using Google Docs to facilitate face-to-face discussion in the classroom would seem to support both of these positions. Classrooms, and face-to-face interaction, are still central points of learning. New technology, like Google Docs, allows group discussion to be accompanied and documented by group writing, leading to new forms of group conversation, attention to text production, and learning in the classroom. The experiment is certainly one I will repeat, and it is readily adaptable for use by others.

About the author: Jim Trostle is a Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College, CT.

How to cite:

Jim Trostle, “Cooperative In-Class Writing with Google Docs,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/trostle.


  1. Anthro 201 link to Google Document for Question 1, https://docs.google.com/document/d/118L2AJZtu55BKo56fmYS37CBXV1v6yRHJmans-kMtng/edit?usp=sharing.
  2. Anthro 201 link to Google Document for Question 2, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QSwz63Fjcd4OSblJgwqs4NT0drVvSU4lmmEvYXzxUto/edit?usp=sharing.
  3. Anthro 201 link to Google Document for Question 3, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1g_5PXzE0FHAjFcM3NYQ1VkoMBF57is5pMcQO_L23Bec/edit?usp=sharing.
  4. Anthro 201 link to Google Document for Question 4, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VXvHNnuZQ6uhBsyNv9IXBvgIsbAcF82XI0xrd8Ffr38/edit?usp=sharing.
  5. Anthro 201 link to Google Document for Question 5, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1IbaMKX2ULzPIRjlZFOy0ojfnt8_GVe4HpJjxi5o5xLM/edit?usp=sharing.
  6. Anthro 201 link to Google Document for Question for All, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1b6rf7s3MbkT1BhUmnzUOsCsjwnVVL3j1cqfn3s6TWOM/edit?usp=sharing.
  7. Jim Trostle, three Anthropology 201 Spring 2013 video clips for "Cooperative In-Class Writing with Google Docs" essay, uploaded to Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/87185460, https://vimeo.com/87186785, and https://vimeo.com/87185461.
  8. Samuel M. Wilson and Leighton C. Peterson, “The Anthropology of Online Communities,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (January 1, 2002): 449–467, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4132888.
  9. Michael Wesch, "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube," (Video of presentation at the Library of Congress, 2008), http://youtu.be/TPAO-lZ4_hU.

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