Your Students are Instant Messaging / Texting / Chatting using Google Docs in the Classroom

We love Google Docs. We first started playing around with this classroom technology in August 2008 and we’ve been using it ever since. We’ve even completed the Google Apps for Education Training to work towards becoming a certified trainer.

Although we love Google docs, over the past few months, Google has rolled out some changes in the way it handles discussions and comments and this makes us a little hesitant to use Google Docs in our classroom.

Watch this youtube video about the Discussion features in Google Docs. This is how your students might be chatting / IMing instead of writing their research essay or short story:

Things we like about Google Docs in the Classroom

A few months ago, we gave eight reasons why we love Google docs. Here are some more ways to consider using Google Docs in your classroom.

Unfortunately, because Google Documents can create a truly collaborative environment, students can delete other students’ work if they are working on the same shared document. (Unlike a twitter feed or a comment thread in a blog where students can respond to each other but not modify or delete previous comments, a shared Google Doc is like a giant piece of paper and everyone is standing around it with a pencil and eraser.)

Google Docs in the classroom can be a distraction : IM / texting / chat

So, what’s the downside of introducing your students to Google Docs? Well, some of your students are going to use it to instant messaging / text / chat with each other instead of working on their class work.

Now, let’s put this in perspective.

Students have been passing each other notes, doodling in textbooks, and writing inappropriate messages on desks, since the beginning of time. Classroom technology simply makes it easier to do this.

Google Docs lets teachers create an authentic, online collaborative environment with their students, but it’s also a high-tech way of passing notes in class.

Here’s how your students are chatting / instant messaging using Google Docs:

  • Create a new document,
  • Share it with a friend, and
  • Start chatting by writing in the document.
  • When the teacher comes around, switch back to work.
  • If you get caught, the teacher will be able to look through the revision history to see everything that was written and deleted.
  • If you’re fast, you can delete the file before the teacher catches you. If you can’t open the file, you can’t see the revision history.
    • Just make sure to delete the file again from the bin to remove it forever, otherwise it can be restored into your document list.
    • We’re not sure what happens when you delete a shared document… Does it disappear from everyone’s document list? We haven’t played around yet enough to know.

The challenge with Google Docs is keeping students on task and productive

Students can create shared online notes, write comments, delete each other’s messages, invite more friends, and those friends (depending on the settings) can invite other friends to join in the fun. It’s like a giant post-it note that everyone is writing on, except students don’t have to be sitting beside their friends to get distracted.

These are, in fact, the skills that we want our students to have.

  • We want our students to know how to use these collaborative tools.
  • We want them to know how to create documents, network with colleagues, and multitask.
  • We simply want them to apply these skills to the assignment at hand.
    • (Yes, we know there’s a counter point in here about creating more engaging assignments that your students will want to do…)
    • (Yes, we know there’s also the idea that we need to give our students opportunity to develop strong work ethics to resist the temptation to IM / chat during class.)

The challenge with Google Docs (and any classroom technology) is keeping students on task and productive in class (although arguably, that’s the same challenge that employers face, and the same challenge teachers have regardless of what tools they use.)

Last September (2011), Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said that schools should be open to the idea of allowing students to use cell phones in class. McGuinty acknowledged that they can be distracting, but there can also be a right way to use them:

“If the teacher says, ‘Alright, we’re all going to go online right now. We’re going to access this information right now.’ That’s different than this gentleman who’s completely ignoring me here and doing his own thing,” Mr. McGuinty added, gesturing towards a texting cameraman. (Globe and Mail)

It’s part of the larger conversation about the acceptable use of technology in schools and in the classroom. The real concern is about keeping students focused in the classroom.

Mr. McGuinty apparently doesn’t allow BlackBerries in cabinet meetings, presumably to keep people focused, and so it seems reasonable that teachers should want similar options to limit distractions to keep their students focused as well. There’s a reason why Facebook is blocked by many school boards.

Two ways that students can get distracted using Google Docs

There are two ways students can chat using Google Docs. (We’re talking specifically about ways to chat within the Google document, as opposed to opening something like Google Chat in a separate window because Google Chat is a module that can be disabled in Google Apps for Education.)

  1. Distraction #1: Students can instant message / chat by typing text in the body of the document.
  2. Distraction #2: Students can instant message / chat by adding comments (or discussions) in the sidebar.

Distraction #1: How to discourage students from writing inappropriate things in the body of a Google document

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When we introduce Google Docs to our students, we let them explore the software, share a document with classmates, type messages to each other, but most importantly, we make sure to introduce them to the revision history feature.

  • The revision history is great because if you accidentally delete your work and save your file, you can look in the revision history, and rollback the file to retrieve your lost work. (This happens to students more than you would think. Heck, it even happens to us.) .
  • The revision history also shows everyone exactly who said what. So in a group project, students know that the teacher can see how much work each person is doing.
  • Finally, we also point out that there’s always a paper trail and that if students misuse classroom technology, it’s easy to scroll through the revision history to see exactly what was said.

We find that when students know that they’re going to be held accountable for what they write in the Google document, they tend to stay more on task. It’s easy to revert to an older version, printout what the student wrote, and then chat with parents.

Things that teachers should be aware of:

  • If you ask students to share their documents with you, it’s easy to do spot checks during a class to make sure students are productive.
  • Depending on the grade, asking students to share the documents with their parents (just by adding their e-mail account) may be an effective way of keeping them on task as well as a way for parents to see some of the learning that is happening in the classroom.
  • Please note that students might open a separate document (that isn’t shared with you) to chat with their friends. If they delete this document from their document lists and the document bin, you won’t be able to recover the revision history to follow the conversation.
  • Google Doc’s revision history isn’t perfect. Depending on the size of your document and the number of revisions you make, Google Docs might actually combine some of those revisions. It’s called revision pruning, and there’s no way to recover some of the individual revisions that Google has combined together. In other words, you may not be able to look through the revision history to see exactly who said what.

Distraction #2: How to discourage students from getting off task when using the sidebar discussion and chat windows

In the old version of Google Docs, our students never really discovered the comment feature. Basically, you highlight some text, click on insert > comment (or control-alt-m), and a little sidebar window pops up where you can type in your message. People could reply to these comments similar to an IM chat window.

Comments were hidden away and a little-known feature and it seemed easier to simply type your comments directly into the document body with a different font color then to write in the side box. (If your document had a lot of comments, then the sidebar really got cluttered and hard to read.)

Now, things have changed. In March 2011, Google upgraded the old comment system and introduced discussions in Google Docs. (It seems like they’ve taken some features from the discontinued Google Wave and incorporated it here.)

If you haven’t checked out the youtube video about the Discussion features, now would be a good time. (Your students are going to figure it out pretty quick.)

This next generation Google Docs discussion commenting system is very cool (and much more obvious):

  • There is a new “discussions” button at the top right of your Google Docs beside the all-import “share” button. You can use this to pop open a discussion window to chat with other people that you shared your document with.
  • (Heck, you can even @mention somebody else to include them in the conversation.)
  • You can add comments to your text and reply to the comments in the sidebar just like before, but now if you click “resolve”, the comments will disappear from the main window to make things less cluttered. (Comments will still appear in the discussions window, unless you “delete” them.)

The new discussions system in Google Docs could be a great tool for teachers. For example, you could write the draft copy of your (learning skills) report cards in Google Docs and then share this document with other teachers who work with that student.

  • Your fellow teachers could comment on your initial draft by leaving questions or concerns in the sidebar.
  • You could modify your draft report card based on the feedback from your colleagues, and as you address comments made in the discussion window, you could resolve them so they weren’t cluttering up your workspace.
  • If you ever need to go back and see what people said about the student (i.e. to prepare for a parent-teacher conference), you can. As long as no one deleted any comments, you would still have a copy of them in your discussion window.

So what’s the problem with using the new next-generation Google discussion system in Google Docs?

Problem #1: Google Docs discussions (comments) are no longer recorded in the revision history.  

They used to be, but now they aren’t.

  • This means that if a colleague accidentally deletes a comment, you’re out of luck – you can’t recover it. (Do you have any low-tech teachers at your school that might accidentally delete important stuff in your shared google docs?)
  • As a teacher, if you leave comments, marks, or feedback for your students using the comment system/discussion window, if a student deletes it (i.e. before their parents see it), you’re out of luck. (There is also no easy way to print comments in the discussion window.)
  • If students bully each other or write inappropriate things in the comment box / discussion window, there’s no way to stop it, monitor it, or track it. (If they make comments in the main body of the Google Doc, it’s recorded in the revision history.)

Problem #2: You can’t turn off the discussion feature inside of Google docs. 

Teachers are going to want to be able to turn off the discussion feature in Google Docs:

Integrating technology into the classroom is great, but we still want to minimize the distractions. There’s a reason why you don’t want students to be able to text on their cell phone in the classroom whenever they want.

Let’s limit the distractions and focus on the work.

Unfortunately, there’s no discussion turn-off switch in Google Docs and the discussion feature is very obvious. Tech savvy students are going to have no problems figuring out how to IM each other (especially now that you can do @mentions and e-mail replies.)

  • Some educators feel that banning IM chat programs is not necessarily the way to go: it’s an opportunity to develop work ethic skills and real life multitasking skills.
  • On the other hand, teachers may not want to have every lesson sidetracked with conversations about using time effectively. Sometimes you need to move students away from distractions – it’s unfortunate that the distraction is built right into Google Docs.

Solution: Teachers want to be able to switch off the discussion chat features in Google Docs

The solution is for Google to add a feature that allows document owners to disable the discussion chat features. (Or, alternatively, a feature that allows the Google Apps for Education site administrators to disable Google Docs discussion entirely.)

We’re not the only one to feel this way. People have been asking for the ability to disable the chat/discussion features in individual Google documents.

Larrycot points out the following in the general Google Docs forum:

Just another plea from an educator: My school recently set up Google accounts for all our students. The potential for collaboration is incredible, but I’ve found collaboration is at a standstill if 8th graders have an opportunity to chat instead of work. I can mitigate the problem somewhat by requiring all students to share all documents with me. Then I can spot-check the docs each group is working on to make sure no buffoonery is taking place. But I find I spend an entire class session worrying about this single issue instead of helping students with their work.

One of my colleagues has taken the draconian measure of “If I see an open chat window on your screen, you get a zero.” I suppose that will work, it would be better if we could solve the issue electronically.

MrsJMcG pointed out the following in the Google Apps EDU administrators circle:

As a teacher using Google Apps for Education through our school system, I find the chat function problematic when I have students working together on projects.

For example, yesterday I did a collaborative writing project with 14 students. It was going well – until someone started the chat string going. After that, no one was paying attention to the writing.

I talked about it with my class and they said that sometimes chat is useful when they were collaborating with one or two other people – but that even then, it often becomes more about IM’ing than collaborating.

I’d like to have the option, as the document creator/owner, to disable the chat function for shared documents on a case-by-case basis.

Thank you Google for giving us this great discussion feature. It’s a great opportunity to address multitasking strategies, IM etiquette, and cyber bullying.

Now please give us the option to exercise our professional judgement and turn this feature off for individual documents (or sitewide if you’re running Google apps for education.) Let’s not have every class that uses Google Docs constantly sidetracked by addressing students who are IMing instead of working.

Perhaps monitoring software is the way to go.

Do you use Google Docs in the classroom? How do you use the comment/discussion/chat features of Google docs?

This post was written using Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 Premium Wireless. This is our first post written using Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 (which was a free upgrade since we owned Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.)Student and teachers can get an educational discount off of DNS 11, but make sure you check out these 10 things to know before you buy the education version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.

  • There are 2305 words in this post (not including the quotes which were copy/pasted from the Google Forums and Globe and Mail article). Dragon made 67 word errors. So, we had an accuracy of 97.1% in this document.
  • If you include punctuation and capitalization errors, Dragon made an additional 12 punctuation and capitalization errors. So, we had an accuracy of 96.6% in this document.

Here are some examples of errors that Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 made in this article:

  • and it gives you = what it may give you
  • online literature circles = online there’s circles
  • using it in the classroom = using in the classroom
  • handled = handle
  • in our classroom ever since = in her classroom. Ever since
  • about the acceptable use = about except the bull use
  • students don’t have to leave their desks = students LEADER desks
  • comment thread in a blog = common thread in a block

6 thoughts on “Your Students are Instant Messaging / Texting / Chatting using Google Docs in the Classroom”

  1. It also seems that your comments and discussions in your Google Docs aren’t searchable.

    We put the word, “bob” in one of our comments in a Google Doc. When we used Google Docs to search for the word, nothing turned up. Hmm.

    1. Did some more testing. It seems if you copy and paste text from your google document into a new google document, any comments that you might have had in there do not get copied over.

      If you copy-and-paste within the same document, it’s just a hyperlink to the original comment.

      Feeling a little nervous about using comments and discussions in Google Documents to provide student feedback because 1) you can copy-and-paste the comments by copying the body text, 2) your feedback and the student’s responses do not show up in your Google Docs search, and 3) there’s no easy way to print off your comments and discussions.

  2. I started using google docs last school year (2010-11). Our tech staff turned the chat feature off for the students but left it on for faculty. The benefits of this outweighs the drawbacks.

    1. Hi Ms. Inman, I agree that there are a lot of benefits to Google Docs, but I don’t think your tech staff is able to disable the chatting feature inside of Google Docs. They can turn off the chatting module for students, but your students can still comment and open discussion chats from inside of a Google Doc. Try it for yourself… log in as a student (or have your tech staff create a “student” account for you), create a new google doc and then see if you can create a comment in the text (or click on the comments / discussion button at the top right of your screen.

      If they really disabled it, I’d love to find out how they did it.

  3. Hey Aaron – thanks for the feedback. I feel like students will figure this out without needing to read my post. At the most basic level, my students are always quick to discover that they can share a doc with their friends and start chatting. Also, once someone figures out that chat window and types a message, anyone who is viewing that document will have that flashing sidebar with the username and message. It’s hard not to click it and open the chat window. More and more schools and teachers are adopting Google Docs. It’s a great tool. But I’m not entirely convinced that teachers are aware of the problems… hence the post. A year later, people are still wondering how to disable the chat feature in Google Docs:!search/disable$20chat/docs/yGI1cvkXviI/Np9JZJ5zwgsJ

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