Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

Google Docs and Going Paperless


After participating in the Maine Writing Project’s Digital Literacy course, Kristi Bancroft took on an action research project to learn the ins and outs of Google Docs and use it in my classroom with the goal of going paperless.

Originally published on March 26, 2011

In the late fall, after setting my students up with Google Docs accounts and receiving my first assignment from them, I changed my “Single” status on Facebook to “In a Relationship”. My comment was “Yes! I’ve changed my relationship status! I am now in a relationship with
 Google Docs!”

The response was pretty humorous. Seven of my tech savvy friends immediately gave me the thumbs up “Like” sign while others were confused and I received incredulous comments, including the following:

“Who/What the hell is Google Docs????”

“Hahahahaha! And why is that?”

“I feel like I am in elementary school and all the big kids on the bus are talking and I want so bad to understand but I DON’T GET IT!!!”

“Google Docs is nice, just don’t do everything on the first date!” To which I replied, “Oh, we’re taking it nice and slow. Thanks for the advice.”

“How nice – a doctor!”

“You’re such a cute couple.”

And from my own sister, “Whaaaaat????”

Before the evening was over, I changed my status back to “Single”, and when the message with the heart came up that informed those who were interested “Kristi went from being ‘In a Relationship’ to “Single’”, there were more interesting comments:

“That didn’t last long!”

“Me too…Congrats…would rather be single than be with someone who isn’t…lol!”

“Did you find a flaw?

And, again, from my own sister, “I guess I’ll put my good clothes back in the closet!

Near the end of this past school year, I began having dreams where I panicked because class was about to start and I discovered that there was no chalk in my classroom! We now have to requisition supplies from our office and have them delivered; the dream had me in dread of appearing unprepared in front of my students! In this nightmare I had a flashback to the first time I turned on an overhead projector, as a new teacher, and what I was attempting to display was on the wall opposite the screen behind me. Yikes! How did I cope in the classroom before we had 1 to 1 computer access?

Why Google Docs?

I have always been interested in technology and the idea of technology integration in my classroom, but wanting to do this and having the resources to do so have made this journey long and difficult. I have been in my current job for seven years, teaching English 9 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. For the first several years the only computer access I could obtain for my students was in one of three computer labs that were shared by all 1100 or so students in the building. Four years ago the freshmen were given the computers handed down to us from the middle school and there were many, many connectivity issues, not to mention the repairs that were frequently necessary. Then the laptops in the best condition were placed in a cabinet and three teams each of 85 or so of our freshman students shared 30 computers. Last year OHCHS went 1 to 1 with Netbook computers and the world has suddenly shifted in favor of technology integration.

Last year, because of my interest in technology integration, I volunteered to become a member of the Technologist Team in my school and I was paid a stipend to conduct workshops on staff development days. Being fairly new to tech integration myself, I offered a popular Mac 101 workshop and covered topics from turning on the laptop, to familiarizing people with Dock applications on our MacBooks. Of course Photo Booth was very popular, but my colleagues found creating mailing lists in First Class, using Stickies, and Noteshare to be helpful. Key Note and iPhoto were other popular topics.

This was all well and good; however, toward the end of the year the Mac 101 session was still offered, but fewer people showed up and I ended up repeating a lot of demonstrations on topics discussed earlier. As this was going on, I was hearing of the great things my other technologist colleagues were sharing in their workshops while my technology skills had come to a standstill.

I kept hearing about the Google Docs workshop, and the idea of using this application to move toward a paperless classroom intrigued me. I had seen my colleague, Richard Byrne (known for his award winning website “Free Technology 4 Teachers”) present a brief overview of Google Docs Forms and I knew I had to learn more – but there was never a time or opportunity.

Then David Boardman gave me the perfect incentive when I received an invitation to participate in the Maine Writing Project course, Digital Literacy. My action research project would be to learn the ins and outs of Google Docs and use it in my classroom with the goal of going paperless. I wanted to discover how Google Docs impacts student learning and engagement in my classroom and how using this technology changes how I teach.

It took some time and a lot of help from colleagues, personal research and practice on my own, and even help from my students. I enlisted a student to set up an account using directions that I had tweaked after borrowing them from a colleague. The student rewrote the instructions to be more peer friendly:

Instructions for Google Account Set-up_1.pdf [media no longer available]

I am feeling much more comfortable using Google Docs at this point in the school year. I am particularly liking the fact that students can no longer give me the excuses for missing assignments like, “My printer is broken” or “My computer crashed and I lost my entire project,” or even, “I completed it and printed it out, but left it on the kitchen counter – right by the door!” The students have lost the ability to make these excuses; if they did the work, we can access it from any computer. If they forgot their login information (which rarely happens now) I have the sealed envelops that they gave to me with this information on the day of our account set up for my for the team.

Passwords Sheet.pdf [media no longer available]

The science teacher suffered a personal family loss in mid-August, and was out on bereavement leave for the first month of school. He came back just after I had gotten all of our students set up with Google accounts and he was very enthusiastic to try it too. He’s young and way more tech savvy than I am, so he has helped me with some issues. One day he showed me how to “Hide” assignments after they’ve been graded and filed. He also answered my questions about creating quizzes using the “Forms” application in Google Docs.

Collaborative Aspects of Using Google Docs

Finally students were prepared to collaborate on their first assignment which was to create a slide show using Google Docs Presentation. In pairs, they were assigned 10 words from our new SAT vocabulary list. They had to create a slide with the new word, its part of speech, and its definition. On the next slide they were to write a sentence using the new word and a context clue, plus import an image that illustrated their sentence. Students were very engaged in this assignment during the class time that was allotted. They “shared” a document for the first time and were able to see the live revisions that were being made instantaneously. At the end of the period I told them that their shows were due at the beginning of the next class, which gave them two more days to collaborate. Some understood that they could collaborate without being together, yet others chose to seek each other out and work side by side on the final slides.

When I received the first “completed” slide show that was shared with me, I realized that despite collaboration there were still many errors in sentences – proper capitalization, punctuation and the correct use of the vocabulary word. During a Digital Literacy workshop session, I spoke to Bailey Means about this. She suggested that I not only model, as I always do, but also share student-created slides and ask students to identify the strengths and weaknesses before I send them off to complete the assignment. I later found this to be particularly helpful in teaching when and how a semi colon should be used to improve a sentence with a context clue. Now that we’ve done this collaborative assignment a couple of times, I have some excellent models of student slide shows to share with all classes while reinforcing students’ sentence writing skills and building their vocabularies.


The collaborative aspect of Google Docs is amazing. Students work on separate computers from wherever they are, in the classroom simultaneously, or on their own from home or any computer with Internet access. The collaboration and effort of individuals is easily monitored and makes students more accountable for their part in a project as individuals. It is great to be able to assess how much time and effort each student put into an assignment by looking at the “Revision History” which looks like this.

To organize the work received, I created folders for each class and inside each class folder I continue to add a folder for each assignment at the suggestion of another tech savvy colleague who has used Google Docs successfully for a couple of years now. I was placing assignments into folders by using the drop down menu, but soon realized that I can just open a folder in the left column and drag and drop assignments into the correct inside folder much faster.

The first writing assignment on Google Docs was a power paragraph on irony in short stories we have read. I gave the students the topic sentence and the format for the power paragraph which I had modeled prior to Google Docs initiation with written paragraphs nominating a Student of the Month, and what they learned about their classmates while playing “Two Truths and a Lie.” Since then students have also submitted book summaries, quarterly journals, and an essay tracing the hero archetype through well-known hero myths that we read during our study of mythology.

While grading the paragraphs on irony, I found that with the features of inserting comments, using strike-throughs and being able to color code text, I am actually spending more time on individual writing and discovering each student’s personal idiosyncracies as a writer. Some common examples are failure to place ones’ self last in a sentence like “Me and my friend always hang out together on weekends“, not knowing when to use an apostrophe and where in singular and plural possessives, not capitalizing appropriately, or just listing details instead of using an example and supporting it with the correct details.

Some Frustrations With Google Docs

A friend was visiting while I was grading the irony in short stories paragraphs. I felt like I kept writing the same comments over and over, like “Always name your assignment so it so doesn’t show up as ‘Untitled’”, and “Titles of short stories are in quotations as opposed to titles of books that are underlined or italicized.” I was grumbling, “I wish this program had canned comments so that I could just click on the comment and it would be inserted instead of writing the same thing over and over. He suggested that I create a Google Doc with common comments and to star it so that I could find it easily when grading assignments. This was really helpful and saved time – plus, I can add to the list of canned comments at any time, as needed. Still, my friend commented that Google could probably put a feature in for inserting canned comments like the following.

  • Always name your document by choosing “File” and then “Rename” so that I will know which assignment you are submitting.
  • Please put a heading on every document with your name, date and class period.
  • Short story titles are in quotations “The Sniper”, as opposed to book titles which are underlined or italicized.
  • Be sure to pay attention to and correct underlined words. This indicates a misspelling which you should correct before sharing a document.
  • Be sure that “Show spelling suggestions” is checked under the “View” menu. Edit and revise any spelling errors before sharing a document for a grade.
  • A definite conclusion is always an important part of any piece of writing.
  • Incomplete until revised and shared again.

It would also be helpful if there was a way to comment on presentations so that students will get that feedback as they do with documents. I tried commenting on individual slides in their slide shows by using the Speaker Notes feature, but unless students open the notes on individual slides, they won’t see my comments. One option is to share the presentation back to the creator(s) and send an attached message with my comments. Another option is to print out the scoring rubric for presentations, requiring the use of paper, which defeats my purpose for using Google Docs.

What is not going so well is getting students to go back into documents and revise them based on my suggestions. I am going to have to do a demonstration on that and will need to encourage them to make revisions ASAP when they see that I have commented and made suggestions or see that an assignment remains “Incomplete” in their portal and has a comment, “Needs revision for a grade”.

Still, I am so pleased to not be carrying tons of paperwork home on a regular basis that the pros of using Google Docs far outweigh the cons! I also like the search feature where I can search a student’s name or the title of an assignment and everything written by that student pops up, or every assignment with that title is all in one place to either file or correct. And ungraded assignments remain unfiled until I grade and file them, which is another nice feature.

Students Responses to Google Docs

At the end of the second quarter, I asked students to write a journal entry describing their experience with Google Docs and the pros and cons. Here are some sample responses, but overwhelmingly students prefer Google Docs to Microsoft Word and Open Office, and many of them have started to use Google Docs for all of their written assignments and presentations; they really like it as a method for not only submitting work, but organizing and keeping track of all of their work. Here are a few of their reviews of Google Docs:

I like using Google Docs because the advantages “outweigh” the disadvantages. Some of the advantages are that you can hand in a document at say 3 a.m. If you want to. All you have to do is share it with your teacher! Another advantage is that you can share it with them when you first start a project. Then your teacher can comment and give you ideas on it while your working on it. Another advantage is that Google Docs automatically saves your document on its own every few seconds. You can also access your Google Docs account from any hard drive, so you don’t have to worry if your laptop breaks or crashes. One con is that not everyone has Internet at their houses. Most kids do, but I know one teen in my class that is incapable of accessing Google Docs from their house.
Ethan E.

I think using Google Docs is really cool and I like it. It’s an advantage because instead of printing things, or writing it all down, you can just share it with your teacher and there you go. Also it’s easier to keep in touch with your teacher, like if you were working on something and you weren’t doing something right your teacher could just go on and look at it and correct it. Both of you could be working on it, instead of continually printing or what not. The disadvantages are that it’s really slow, or it is just our computers. I don’t really like the slide show presentation thing on here. Key Note, last year has way more options and it’s a lot easier to use. Google Docs Presentation is really hard to get used to if you used Key Note or something before. Also Google Docs doesn’t have many font options.
Katelyn B.

Google Docs is generally a very good tool. Google Docs allows many things that standard typing programs do not. For instance Google Docs allows you to work on your documents from any computer. This is a great tool because you don’t have to worry about bringing your computer anywhere. Google Docs also lets you share the documents with other people instantly. The only disadvantage I have found with Google Docs is that it is like any other website and you have to rely on Internet. This means that your documents will freeze occasionally and you will have to wait for them to load to continue working. Also, if you close your laptop and then open it later, it can take a very long time for Google Docs to reconnect.
Zach H.

For me, Google Docs has has its ups and downs. It’s WAY easier than writing by hand or on a word processor then printing it out and handing it in. It’s a much easier way to get work in, but, there are some things that really frustrate me. Sometimes I’ll forgot to title some of my documents or forget to share with my teacher, and then it gets really hard to find them, or my teachers will just not even tell me I haven’t shared something with them and then all of a sudden my grade’s lower than it was before and that makes me mad. But, in the end I do like using Google Docs more than handwriting or using a word processor and handing it in; it is easier to keep track of things because they’re on Google Docs.
Julia F. 

This year, so far, has been a little easier to get through using Google Docs. Some pros are that we can turn things in at a a click of a mouse, and you can have multiple people working on the same item for group presentations. I guess there’s really only one con, that’s if someone does not have Internet access or their Netbook is dead or broken. If that happens, they’d have to write and write and write. I like using Google Docs, because it’s safe; it’s secure; it’s fast. I love the “Equation” function; it helps with math work and such if I type it out. Another pro for Google Docs is the bandwidth usage. It doesn’t have much video, images, or many moving items. It uses up minimum bandwidth and it’s easy to use on such a large network being accessed by so many students.
Jeff C.

I like using Google Docs. It saves automatically and I like the fact that I don’t have to worry about losing my paper or about printing it off before my next class. I get annoyed with Google Docs because it kind of is slow and has malfunctions. The cons of Google Docs are that if you don’t have Internet you can’t share a project with someone or you can’t work on it either. The pros are that you can upload your project if you have the time and someone can work on it with you, but you don’t have to make plans with them to work on it. I am a little unsure about how much I like it, but I need to get used to it. Give it time and I might come to like it a lot.
Frankee T.

The Relationship Continues to Grow and Thrive

New Discussion Features

On March 16, my colleague Richard Byrne posted on his site, a link to information “New Discussion Features in Google Docs” This feature expands the commenting aspect of Google Docs so that collaborators can respond to each others’ comments during the composition or revision process of a document.

I was eager to try out this feature, but unsure how I would use it with students, though I thought I would encourage them to use it when collaborating with classmates on a Google Docs project. I needed an opportunity to test this feature on my own.

A good friend, Michael Kenyon, is about to publish a wonderful book for adolescents called Fiona & the Fairy Princess and two weeks ago he asked me to proofread his manuscript and make suggestions for the final revision. I was thrilled to do this and suggested using Google Docs thinking this would be the perfect opportunity to try the new discussion feature.

Since the manuscript is over 400 pages long and Michael is unfamiliar with Google Docs, we decided to experiment with a chapter from the Fiona and the Fairy Princess Blog,, which is not going to be included in the book. I copied and pasted the three-part story “The Chronicle of Rumple Dumple” into Google Docs. I had gone through Parts 1 and 2 before Michael joined in and found my comments. He was able to respond to my comments and even asked some clarifying questions or made observations of his own.

This is an excellent feature as I am one who is up early in the morning and he is a night owl who does most of his writing while the rest of us are asleep. When he logged on and retrieved the document, he was able to respond or make the revisions . And when it came to questions about grammar, I could even post a link for him to visit.

In one section of the story Fiona and her fairy princess friend, Aeyra, are given some time on their own to explore some small shops in downtown Frederick, Maryland while Fiona’s dad is in the local art store. Both girls are 10; Fiona is the daughter of a single father, and Aerya is a real fairy princess who lives with Fiona after her father was convinced that they had agreed to have an exchange student for the year.  Michael and I discussed whether or not “purse” was the best word that a 10-year-old would use for pocketbooks, handbags, or purses displayed in a window of one of the shops.

The comments turned into a phone call where we discussed our “discussion” via Google Docs. This is a great feature, but like other features it will take time to discover its usefulness. Michael and I talked about how this might be useful for a committee determining who might win a particular scholarship, for example. I agreed that it would be an excellent tool for a collaborative project like that. How much time freshmen in high school would spend using this feature, I’m not sure.

The fact is that I am still in a relationship with Google Docs and my love and interest grow daily. I don’t like the looks of the latest version, but have found that it is now easier to print a document created in Google Docs than it was in the past.

It’s guess it’s just best if we keep it as a “Friends with Benefits” relationship as there are so many others who want to “Share”. In the meantime I am happy to say that Google Docs has become a positive enhancement to my typical classroom practice.