Friday, 11 May 2012

5 Reasons to Use Google Docs... and 2 not to

Over the last couple of years I’ve been using the cloud-based Google Docs almost exclusively for my word processing needs and as a way for students to write and submit their essays. Despite its growing popularity - particularly since Google created a Dropbox-like desktop version called Drive- many teachers and students still prefer to use traditional software programmes such as Microsoft Word for document creation. However, I think there are compelling reasons for teachers to at least experiment with Google Docs in their classroom.

Reasons to use Google Docs...

Free Your Inbox

As Google Docs are created online and can be shared automatically through an email address, there’s no need for the constant back and forth with attachments via email. I could never keep on top of whether I’d marked a student’s writing or had sent it back to them. Having one version that is always up to date is so much easier to manage. 

Work together

Google Docs can be a great tool for teachers to collaborate on documents together with colleagues or to encourage students to peer review and check each other’s work. There is no limit to the number of people who can work together on a document and it can be done synchronously or asynchronously. If you are doing it synchronously, you even have the option to chat with the other people editing it in a sidebar.


One of Google Docs great features are the margin comments you can make on students’ work. I know you can do this in Microsoft Word as well, but Google Docs makes it more interactive by creating a chat-like structure down the side of the page. I can comment on a part of a student’s essay in a side comment and then the student can reply with a suggestion or correction in the box below.

side comments on Google Docs

Even better, any comment that anyone else makes on a document of mine will be sent to me via email and I can actually add further side comments direct from my inbox. This feature is particularly useful when you’ve asked students to correct portions of the text and you just need to acknowledge that the correction is suitable.

Never lose your work

We’ve all had that situation where we lose all our work on a Word or Powerpoint document because the programme crashes or the computer freezes. Or documents accidentally get deleted from a hard drive or flash drive due to carelessness or technical breakdown. With Google Docs it’s impossible to lose more than a couple of sentences as it automatically saves every few seconds

And it’s not just documents...

Google Docs has a full office suite, including Presentations (their Powerpoint equivalent), Spreadsheets (Excel) as well as Forms for creating surveys and quizzes. With the release of Drive, they have now integrated other services such as mindmapping, 3D drawing, and picture and video editing. All of these share the same sharing and collaborative features, so you can work on a presentation, mindmap or spreadsheet together.

And a couple not to...

Don’t expect anything too fancy

If you create complex Word documents and Powerpoint presentations with lots of tables, charts, images and graphical flourishes, you might find Google Docs very frustrating. Inevitably, an online application will never offer the same range of functions and options as a standalone programme and when you go beyond just using text in Google Docs, you often come across annoyances and limitations in formatting. My biggest issue comes with when I try to insert a table into a Google Doc: they are difficult to edit, it’s difficult to select rows/columns and there are very limited cell formatting options. The same goes for image editing.

Complicated sharing options

Google try to give you lots of options for sharing your docs: you can share with individuals, groups, you can share a document via a link, you can make it public, you can share it only within a domain, such as the University of Sheffield. You can also do all of these things with whole folders and not just individual docs. You can also adjust the level of access to those you’ve shared a document with: you can give collaborators full editing rights or just the right to view the document or comment on it. 

which option should I choose for sharing?

While it’s great to have this degree of granularity when sharing, it can be very confusing when you first start using Google Docs and there’s a good chance you’ll share documents with people you didn’t mean to, or you won’t give your collaborators the level of access to the document you wanted to and they aren’t able to edit or comment on them. There’s quite a learning curve with the sharing settings on Google Docs and you might not want to go through that if you deal with sensitive and private documents on a daily basis.

Should I use Google Docs?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: if you are tired of the constant email back and forth with attachments, tired of constantly losing your work due to computer freezes or accidental deletions; if you have to grade and comment  on students’ writing regularly; if most of the work you do in office programmes are text rather than table and images; if you collaborate frequently on documents/presentations with colleagues; if you are willing to put some time in to learn the sharing settings on Google Docs - then yes also.

My own experiences have been almost entirely positive with Google Docs, the only downside being the limited formatting options in some of the applications. It has made the process of marking and commenting on students’ essays a thousand times easier for me and the options for collaboration and peer feedback on work are incredible. If you haven’t had a chance to try it, I would recommend you at least giving it a go and seeing if it works for you.



  1. Some things I've found:

    *It's often better start in Google docs with initial drafting and collaboration. Importing documents into GDocs can result in formatting errors and doesn't always work well.

    *I advise my staff to start with Google Docs at the inception/draft and collaboration stage but once the creative process has resolved itself you can migrate the document to a file to apply 'polish' or for archival.

    *I have quite a few GDocs and the web interface can be a little clunky for organising everything. Google Drive now presents GDocs as 'files' and folders and provides a more familiar experience that's easier to work with.

  2. Yes, I agree with that. My students often cut and paste their essays from Word into Google Docs and things like paragraph breaks are often lost. Also, you can get a lot of weird font issues as well.

    I agree that the new Drive interface is better, but I rather liked the old Gdocs view with all your most recent files on the homescreen. It's getting people to shift the paradigm. The reason why you need to put things in folders in Windows is because that's the only way to find them later! The search function in Google Docs is amazing - if anyone knows search it's Google after all - and any doc can be located in seconds just using the search bar. I don't often need to put things in folders as I know I can just search for them later.



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