Online Learning 2.0: The Benefits of Shared Document Editing

As teachers, we like to think of ourselves as equipping students with skills that will serve them in their post-college lives. One of the most important of these skills is the ability to work in groups, which is why we assign group projects to our students.

But we seldom teach students fundamental collaboration skills. We put them in groups, give them their assignments, and send them on their way to figure it out themselves. We don’t model collaboration for our students.

A team project should include some lessons about collaboration. In particular, students need to learn how to do shared document editing. Most people are still using outdated systems and methods of collaboration from the paper age that waste time and create errors. Students need to learn both the technology and the practices that allow for collaborative development in the digital age. That’s why faculty should have students do all group work using a shared document editing system.

Shared document editing

Most people still collaborate on group documents by sending them around as email attachments. This is probably the worst way to work as a group. Email attachments create multiple versions of documents, and soon people are editing old versions or trying to blend multiple versions into one.

But the Internet changed all that. Now groups of people can work on the exact same document on Google Drive. Because all edits are made to the same document, there are no multiple versions floating around to cause version confusion.

Google Drive allows for collaboration on text documents as well as on spreadsheets, presentations, and even videos—with more types coming along all the time. You can even watch multiple people edit a document online in real time. Each editor is given a different-color cursor, and the edits being made by anyone online appear before your eyes as they are made. Of course, Drive keeps a history of edits, so users can see the history of a document and revert to past versions with a single click.

Google also dispensed with the save button. Once you enter a keystroke, your edit is immediately saved on the common version in the cloud. If you kick the power cord to your computer out of the wall, anything you did to a document on Google Drive is still there.

Shared document editing is starting to be used more and more in the business world and will likely become the norm soon. Email attachments may very well go the way of the eight-track tape. You will provide your students with a valuable job skill by requiring all group work to be done on a shared editing system. Once you start seeing the benefits of shared document editing, you’ll also want to introduce it to your department for committee and other group work. But there are additional advantages for shared document editing in teaching.

Make project development visual

I used to ask for periodic updates from students who were doing group projects. But now I just have students build their projects on Google Drive and include me in the permissions. Once someone uploads or creates a document, he or she then provides others with viewing, commenting, or editing privileges. When my name is added to the list, I can monitor progress at any time. Too often we ask only for the product of students’ work, not the process. But the process is what they are really learning, and it’s important to “make thinking visible” so that you can evaluate the process as well as the product. Shared document editing does that.

I can also ask questions or point out issues in the project using the commenting function, which is similar to the Word comments function. Google adds an interesting feature that allows the user to indicate that a comment has been “resolved.” This allows me to make a comment on a section of the project and require students to resolve it before they hand it in. In this way I know that students are addressing my comments in the work. I can also have students add their own comment below my comment about how they resolved the issue.

Teach genuine collaboration

When most people start using a shared editing system, they are hesitant to make edits directly to a work that was originally posted by someone else. This feels like putting words in someone else’s mouth. They instead add suggestions as comments and expect the original authors to make changes if they would like.

But you want to break students of this habit by having them directly edit the document. Just as the score of a football game ultimately applies to all the players, group work is ultimately a reflection of the group as a whole. Encourage students to make changes directly to the work no matter whose text is being edited. This reinforces the fact that it is a team effort. If they like, they can add a comment to a change explaining why they made it, but they should feel free to make the change directly. This will teach genuine collaboration on a shared effort, a skill that will serve them well in the future.

See this video overview of Google Drive to get started:

John Orlando has 15 years’ experience in online education, mostly learning by trial and error. He helped develop and lead online learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and he has taught faculty how to teach online as well as how to use technology in their face-to-face teaching. He serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board.

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