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Group work using Google Drive

Online faculty are always on the lookout for a good system for facilitating group work. You want a system that separates student contributions and allows the instructor to view the progression of student work. Google Drive, a cloud-based, shared document editing website, is ideal for this purpose. Its power lies in the ability of collaborators to edit the exact same document in real time. There are no more problems with multiple versions floating around in email attachments. You can even watch edits being made by different collaborators at once with different-colored cursors moving across the screen making edits. 

Another nice feature of Drive is that work is saved without hitting any save button. As soon as you enter a keystroke on the computer, the work is saved. Because it is cloud-based, work does not need to be submitted to another location for the instructor to see it. The instructor is just given access to work as a shared collaborator, and can add his or her feedback directly to that work. 

Drive comes with the myriad of features you are offered when creating a Google account, including email, word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, blogging, website hosting, a YouTube page, audio- and videoconferences through Google+ Hangouts, and a variety of other services, all for free. You need not use them all and can activate only those you want. Google also has the very powerful Google Classroom available free for any institution. It requires an institutional account to activate, but it is well worth asking your institution to pursue.

You can create files on Drive by either uploading files made on other systems, such as Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, or creating them from scratch on the Drive site. The person who creates or uploads the file is designated as its “owner” and can then share access to it with other users via their Gmail accounts. The owner can also designate the access privileges of each user, with some given the ability to only view the work, others given the ability to edit it, and others given the ability to delete it as a co-owner. 

Drive's word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation features are similar to those on PC or Mac systems, so there is almost no learning curve for most users. What is new to most students is simultaneous editing. Students may at first feel nervous about directly editing someone else's work, and so instead they make suggestions using the comments feature. This is fine, but the ideal group collaboration is when there is enough trust and comfort for people to directly add to the shared document. 

Another helpful feature of Google Drive is revision history. This allows instructors to look back at the history of the file and see individuals' contributions. Different users' contributions show up in different colors.  

Step-by-step guide to using Google Drive for a group project:

  1. Instruct students to create a Google account and send you a Gmail from that account in order to get their address. 
  2. Save each incoming student's email as a contact in order to make it easier to share files with them in Drive. 
  3. Create a contact group within your Google account for each group of students. This will make it easier to contact all group members at once by email. Take a look at this tutorial on how to create Google groups:
  4. If you want to give each group a template to scaffold their work, or perhaps questions to answer, then upload that to Drive. 
  5. Save a copy of that template for each group with a different name (group 1, group 2, etc.). 
  6. Give each group access to its own version by adding group members as editors through the sharing feature. 
  7. Check each group's progress periodically, using the revision history to assess individual contributions, and make comments when needed.
  8. Once the assignment is due, add feedback on the Drive version itself, or download it to your learning management system.  

Google Drive is a simple, powerful system for facilitating online group work. Use it for group assignments in your courses. 

Dr. Matthew Winslow is a professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University.