Oregon State University

Collaborative Composition with Google Drive

Google Apps for OSU

By Jon Louis Dorbolo, Technology Across the Curriculum

This article focuses on uses of Google writing tools, collectively called Google Drive, for collaborative writing assignments.  This focus is relevant because in Fall 2013 OSU made an institutionally licensed Google Apps resource available to students, faculty and staff.  Student ONID email accounts have migrated to Google (maintaining their onidname@onid.orst.edu addresses).  This creates a condition where students may easily share Google documents with one another and instructors may join as well.  Google Drive includes tools for shared Documents, Presentations, Spreadsheets, Forms, and Drawings.  Group work on producing any of these may be considered collaborative writing.

Collaborative composition can be a very powerful teaching strategy because it pushes into the open aspects of writing that are often opaque to learners.  Collaborative writing is social and requires (or at least encourages) meta-communication about the writing process and content.  The social dimensions of co-writing are described by Galegher and Kraut (1994) as:

negotiation about the meaning of facts, a demand for consensus as to an appropriate solution, division of labor based on concerns for fairness and quality of work, coordination of individual contributions, and resolution of questions about authority within the group. (113)

Making learners accountable to one another for an assessed writing assignment produces a dialectic in which these factors must be faced.  If you have ever co-written with a colleague, you know how powerful—and challenging—these social factors in collaborative writing can be.

To facilitate collaboration, many apps may be “connected” to individual OSU Google accounts for collaborative creativity, including mindmaps, photo editing, video editing, cad design, drawing, project management, music production, white board drawing, bibliography creation (Zoho), note taking, cartooning, mathematics, code writing, 3-D modeling, chess, and a whole lot more.  How useful any of these apps are for your teaching will be determined by your experimentation with the tools and your designs for employing them.  TAC offers webinars in OSU Google use and will consult on any instructional project using OSU Google tools that you can think of.  Visit http://oregonstate.edu/tac for webinars and contacts.

Ritchie and Rigano (2007) identify three types of collaborative writing used for higher education assignments.

Lead writing: Here drafts are produced by individuals and exchanged with others who review and edit, and then exchange back to continue the process.  This type of assignment is well suited for partnered pairs of writers, though more collaborators may be involved.  The 21st century brings us Cloud-Based tools that allow for real-time and self-directed collaboration.  These are the potentials that Google Apps offer for teaching and learning.

Turn writing: Here learners each compose parts of a text that is then edited into a combined whole.  This type of assignment focuses on individual writing and group editing; this is where review and negotiation takes place.  Establishing roles such as section editors and executive editor can be helpful here.  Turn writing is well suited to longer term projects involving multiple participants and resulting in public presentation (e.g. a public blog or presentation to the whole class). 

Writing Together Side‑by‑Side: Here, collaboration is very rich as the participants are both writing and communicating about the writing in real-time.  This process could take place in a classroom or out-of-class meeting where the group, for instance, brainstorms an outline in discussion with one of the group taking notes on paper or a white board.  I do that every day in my work, though it is more difficult to compose paragraphs in the whiteboard mode.  That is exactly where online collaborative tools are useful for this type of collaboration.  Getting good at group decision making and planning is critical to all learners. 

Given these three types of collaboration, we now consider the instructional use of Google Apps characterized by variations in the usage of time and space as shown in four activity models.


Time Space Collaborative Models
Adapted from Ellis, Gibbs, and Rein (1991).


Synchronous Local Collaboration: Learners writing together while sitting in a circle is a powerful learning experience as the vocal meta-communication about the writing emerges naturally.  Google aids this model by providing a common document that all in the circle can see and contribute to in writing.  A typical version of this model is to ask all learners to bring laptops to class (if they do not have one they can arrange a loan from the Valley Library).  Tablets and phones may work, though their typing capabilities are limited.  If a learner has no digital device, they can view another’s and participate verbally and on paper.  Instruct the group (3-7 participants works well) to set up by having one student start a document in Google and invite the other members to it.  The writing process may move from in-class to out-of-class and back iteratively.  For instance: Produce an outline (in-class)....Research topics individually (out-of-class)....Share research and produce a group draft (in-class).  This synchronous model may be mixed with other models effectively.  Everything depends on providing learners with a clear process to follow.

Asynchronous Local Collaboration: This model involves participants using a single space at different times from one another, much like creating graffiti or a writing wall.  We may consider a threaded discussion board (such as in Blackboard or Google Groups) to be a part of this model since learners post to a common place (an online forum) with time as the variable.  Google collaboration does not lend itself as well to this model, though I expect that some inspired educator will find a creative way.

Synchronous Distributed Collaboration: Learners can have same-time group writing online from different places by using a combination of Google Drive Apps. This accomplishes the aims of Synchronous Local Collaboration through using video (Google Hangouts) to mediate meta-communication as learners work on a shared document (Google Documents).  Shared video platforms are in constant metamorphosis, so it is effective to ask your learners to select a platform, to help one another, and to show you how.  Of course, TAC will be glad to assist in this with you and your class any time.

Asynchronous Distributed Collaboration: This is likely the most familiar model of collaborative writing with Google Drive. Composition, broadly construed, is a powerful learning strategy for every discipline and contemporary technologies may facilitate collaborative composition in ways that make it practical for your instruction.  Success in such efforts follows from three basic steps:

1. Plan: Adapt a model for your purposes and develop an instructional structure such that a beginner can follow them readily.  It is not the job of faculty to provide technical support.  Turn to your instructional technology support professionals for that.

2. Test: Whatever you design, try it out yourself before assigning it to students.  Put the assignment and technologies through the whole cycle from initiation to grade.  Having tested the assignment for yourself, consider releasing it to learners as a trial or extra-credit for a term.  Tell them that you want to field test a new assignment and collect feedback and suggestions.  In IT this is called user testing: an essential step in any project development.

3. Assess and Revise: Once your creation is in use by learners as an assignment, make yourself open to feedback.  Anonymous surveys are excellent for this.  Consider the feedback honestly and make revisions where useful.

Follow this development cycle and you will gain mastery over the instructional uses of some technologies.  Please share your successes and challenges with us at TAC and remember that we will assist in technology selection, technology use, assignment design, and learner support.



In good spirit, 

Jon Louis Dorbolo



Ellis, C. A., Gibbs, S. J., & Rein, G. L. (1991). Groupware: Some issues and experiences. Communications of the ACM, 34(1), 39-58.

Galegher, J., & Kraut, R. E. (1994). Computer-mediated communication for intellectual teamwork: An experiment in group writing. Information Systems Research, 5(2), 110-138.

Ritchie, Stephen M. and Rigano, Donna L. (2007) Writing together metaphorically and bodily side-by-side: An inquiry into collaborative academic writing. Reflective Practice 8(1):pp. 123-135.

Tue, 11/26/2013

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