Making my students switch from MS Word to Google Drive not only eliminated the headache of incompatible versions and big email attachments. It’s made them better writers.
When I started teaching college writing and journalism classes five years ago, the choice was to have students submit assignments the way I had 15 years earlier — as hard copy — or as a Word document.
Neither situation was ideal. Paper, is, well, paper. Word seemed more efficient, but I soon realized different students had different versions of Word and were working on different operating systems.
Far too often I’d give up and have a student submit work by copying from a problematic file and pasting it into an email. That eliminated Word’s biggest advantage over paper: the ability to insert legible comments in the margins and track changes.
All that changed a year ago when I started requiring students to submit assignments using Google Drive, which was still called Google Docs then.
They were reluctant at first but we quickly ended the problem of lost documents, unreadable attachments and massive files clogging our email. The students didn’t have to buy additional software and, at most, I spent half of class showing them the basics of using the app.
But along the way, we also found an additional, unexpected benefit: It made learning to write easier for many of my students.
Google Drive Makes It Easier To Think With Your Fingers
Like every decent writer, editor or writing instructor I have ever met, I like to “think with my fingers.” That is, show the person what they’re trying to explain by simply banging out a phrase, sentence or paragraph into the documented being reviewed or edited.
The problem in the instructional sense is that that usually means the student looks over the professor’s shoulder as he rips apart the paper.
With Google Drive, we can be sitting on opposite ends of the same table or opposite ends of the continent. They will see my changes in live time and start to see why I’m making the changes. If they don’t like the changes I suggest, they can simply use the “Restore Previous Version” feature. And if they have a question about what I’m doing, they can open a chat box and we can discuss in real time.
Good For Groups
In most of my writing classes, students workshop first drafts. In some classes, they work collaboratively on a writing project (last year, for example, my first-year writing class researched updates to the school’s Wikipedia page). With Word and paper documents, that meant sacrificing valuable class time or having students try to find out of class times when they could all meet.
That is no longer a factor. Google Drive lets students make and respond to comments and editing changes when it works for them, which gives us more in-class time to work on direct instruction.
Making The School Newspaper More Efficient
I also serve as the adviser to the Comment, the student-run newspaper at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Up until last year stories were submitted to a central email address as Word, with all the problems I previously mentioned, plus an added layer potential mishaps.
With Word documents being saved on different hard drives, student editors and page designers often ended up working on older versions of a story. In the best case scenarios, editors would have to re-edit a story once they found the most up-to-date version. In the worst case scenario, the wrong version of the story would be published, or different versions of the same story would end up on the site and in the print edition.
After experimenting with Google Drive last year, the paper started using is exclusively for copy this semester. Editors always know they are always working on the most recent version of the story and they can discuss edits with reporters remotely, which has made the paper’s tiny office much less crowded this year.
We got an added boost when Trello, which we also adopted to manage story ideas, announced just before the start of our semester that they students could now attach Google Drive documents directly to the Trello cards they create for each story they’re working on.
Originally published Oct. 2, 2012 on ReadWriteWeb.