Guest Post: Google Docs for Classroom Instruction

Cross-posted on the the Google Enterprise Blog

Guest Post: Philip Greenspun is a pioneer in developing online communities and an educator who has taught electrical engineering and computer science courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1987. Today he explains how he used Google Docs to develop and distribute curricular materials and to support in-classroom discussion of student solutions.

In 1983, I began building applications to support multi-user collaboration over the Internet. When I began using the World Wide Web in 1993 I vowed never to write a native application program again and said "every desktop computer program going forward should simply run in a Web browser." Since the main reason to prepare a document was for others to view, I predicted that everyone would be using browser-based word processors and spreadsheet programs by the year 2000. I am still waiting for my "everyone goes to work in a flying car" prediction to come true also...

In January 2011, four of us were developing an entirely new course for MIT students, an intensive lab-based SQL programming and Android development class. All of us are proficient Web developers accustomed to authoring pages in standard text editors and publishing them on our own servers, but it turned out to be easier and more effective to use Google Docs to collaboratively develop course materials. Google Docs was more effective because simultaneous updates could proceed in different areas of a document and we weren't slowed down by having to do explicit check-ins with a standard version control system (or circulate drafts with names such as "DayOneProblems-final-version-by-philg-really-really-final"). Also, the "insert a comment" feature of Google Docs proved useful, e.g., when I wasn't sure if an example program was correct and wanted to ask a collaborator to check, but without leaving crud in the main body of the document.

We created two Google Docs folders the night before class: lessons, editable by us and view-only for students; workspace, editable by everyone. Into the "lessons" folder we moved the first day's assignment. In the "workspace" folder we created a "Day 1 Workspace" document intended for students to cut and paste code into. As each student walked into the classroom, we asked him or her to email a teacher from his or her Google Account (most students already had Gmail and some experience with Google Docs) and the teacher would share both folders with the new student, immediately enabling access to all lessons.

As the course materials had never been used before, they contained some errors and many sections that lacked sufficient hints or explanations. When we noticed these deficiencies, e.g., when a student asked a question, we would edit the problem set from a teacher's laptop and all students would immediately see the change on the projector and/or on their own screens.

Google Docs enabled us to distribute solutions incrementally. The first morning we created a "Day 1 Solutions (January 2011)" document and dragged it into the lessons (view-only for students) folder. As the day progressed, when 90 percent of the students were done with a problem, we would add the solution to the end of this document (by copying from another Google Doc, of course) so that students would have it in front of them and be prepared for the discussion.

The shared Google Docs workspace documents enabled us to have students paste their work into shared documents that could be used for projection and discussion and also for members of the class to try out each other's SQL queries.

To gather feedback at the end of the course, we simply created a feedback document and put it into the workspace folder, then used the "email editors/viewers" feature (from the Share menu) to ask students to add their thoughts, including whether they liked Google Docs ("great for sharing solutions"; "very effective"; "Generally yes, I did get a little confused with all the browser tabs I had open"; "very efficient and comfortable"; "green too").

We were technical people teaching a technical course, but everything that we did with Google Docs would have been easy for a person without any programming or HTML authoring background. Google Docs was an important asset for our course and significantly enhanced the in-classroom experience.

You can read more about our experience, including our wishlist, at

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