Group work is not so easy when teaching remotely. There are many tools that can help, like Zoom and Google Meets; however, I prefer using Google Docs for student collaboration. It’s low tech, but it works beautifully.
Google Docs & Student Collaboration:
My go-to strategy for online collaboration has always been Google Docs – even before the pandemic hit. Living in Eastern Canada, where snow days are a regular event, I used it many times pre-2020 to keep my students learning. And, when we did move to remote learning last spring, our district didn’t allow us to use any form of video conferencing until the very end of the semester. I had no choice but to use Google Docs and Slides to get my students working together.
However, now that we can use Zoom and Meets, Google Docs will still be my go-to. I’ll tell you why first, and then I’ll show you how and give you a free activity you can use with your students.
Why Do I Prefer Google Docs for Student Collaboration?
Video has its place for connecting with students. The lack of connection is one of the biggest downfalls of remote learning, so it is important that we use it – just not all the time.
I prefer to do most of my remote group work using a Google Doc or Slides for two reasons. First, not all kids are comfortable on camera, either because of their self-confidence or their reluctance to let others into their homes. Allowing them to collaborate online in a less invasive way can go a long way to increase engagement (Get more ideas for engagement and distance learning here).
Also, video needs to synchronous. If I use live break out rooms for student collaboration, then students have to be available at the same time. Now I know some of you are required to hold classes at a certain time, but if you aren’t, allowing kids to choose when they will do the work will increase the chance that they will get it done. Not all of them are able to access the technology at the time you want them to because they may be sharing computers with parents and siblings. Or they may be looking after younger brothers and sisters during the day. This makes it hard to commit to a certain time for live video meet ups.
Last spring, when I assigned group work, I would set a deadline for it to be finished, and allow students to pick a time that worked for everyone in the group. Then, they had to let me know what time they would be working, so I could “drop in” to supervise. This became a little hard to manage because they were meeting at all hours of the day (and night), so instead I gave them specific chunks of time that I would be available – and told them to contact me if there was an issue.
Google Docs work with synchronous teaching too:
I know that many teachers are struggling with the lack of connection you get with students who won’t turn on their cameras. Teaching to a sea of blankness must be so difficult. However, if you create activities that occur via a Google Doc or Slide, your camera-shy students can interact. Even though I prefer the asynchronous version of this, I still chose to do some live sessions last spring just so we could be connected. You just need to create the assignment and share it with your students (or groups of students) and you can observe the interaction in real time – and in many ways it’s better than using breakout rooms.
Let me tell you why:
The #1 Reason I Prefer Google Docs for Student Collaboration:
The main reason I use Google Docs for student collaboration is because it allows me to get a much clearer idea of what my students are doing. And when I have a clearer picture, I can do a better job of helping them.
I know you have experienced this in the classroom: you hear a group of students having a lively discussion, but as soon as join them, they (or some) may clam up. This could be because they are off topic, or because they are worried that they are “wrong” and don’t want you to hear that (cultivating a climate for “failure” can help that, but that’s another story you can read about here).
The best part about Google Docs for group work and distance learning is that I can “drop in” and observe what my students are doing without my presence being obvious or intimidating.
But can’t I do that with video and breakout rooms?
Yes, but one issue with supervising live collaboration, whether it’s in school or online, is that you only hear the students who contribute while you are there. With Google Docs or Slides, you can read what everyone wrote on the document. You can also write comments that prod them to add more detail or push them to go in another direction if they are off topic. Because these comments are in writing – rather than verbal ones – students can go back and refer to them later.
When we do this, I ask each student to write in a different color, so I can easily see who is contributing – or who isn’t. If I see that someone hasn’t done their share, I’ll ask them a question in the comments. Now I know you can do this live, but because they have been doing their work on a document, I can go back and look at what is there. You can’t do that when you are popping in and out of breakout rooms. Yes, you can record them and look at them later, but nothing beats being able to communicate with a student in the moment.
How do I use Google Docs for Student Collaboration?
First of all, you need a task that students can collaborate on. For example, you may ask them to work on one of the following:
Group Writing Assignments or Challenges
This week, my students are reading a selection of non-fiction texts that focus on the question Are We Too Connected? Individually, they will read the articles and take notes, then they will meet as a group to share their ideas. My students are face-to-face, so we will be doing discussion at a distance, but last spring, I did activities like this online by sharing the task and having them conduct their discussion via a doc. They would use the chat function for their discussion and record their conclusions on the doc or slide.
If you would like to use this assignment with your students, click here and I’ll send it to your inbox.
I sincerely hope that I’ve given you ideas that you can put to use right away, so you can lighten your load a little. Please, never hesitate to reach out with questions.