Google Docs with tablets and BYOD for seminar tasks

Use of Google Docs in class as collaborative documents and method for feedback

My recent investigations into tablet and laptop ownership amongst our students have suggested that we might be able to take advantage of these devices in-class. Dr Antonios Roumpakis, one of our lecturers in Social Policy, proposed where this might be useful.

BYOD for referencing

As an informal pilot, within one of our first year core module seminars, tablets and laptops were used as part of a referencing skills exercise. This exercise required the students to collaboratively create a correctly formatted reference list from a selection of different types of resources that was made available to them, for example photocopies of a journal article first page, the print details page of a book or a newspaper article. Referencing is a key skill that all first year undergraduates must get to grips with, as the requirements of referencing and acknowledgement are much higher than at lower levels of study. Dr Roumpakis wanted to enable group working for this task to encourage discussion over an often misinterpreted skill and needed a method for feedback to correct students’ errors. I proposed a combination of Google Docs with tablets/laptops in-class.

Students were encouraged to 'bring your own devices' (BYOD), but for those without, we had a small stock of 10" Samsung Galaxy Tabs running Android. Not every student had a device, though what was important was that within the group of four or five students at least one person could access Google Drive.

Google Docs for group work

All students in our institution have Google Drive as part of our Google Apps for Education package. Few of them had used it before, and there were distinct advantages to this method instead of paper-based or Word doc-based work:

  • A template which included example references and links to the full referencing guide could be pushed out to all students.
  • With tutor access already on the templates, the tutor could mark work on-the-fly during class and mark follow-up tasks after the session.
  • Again with tutor access, work could be brought up on the PC projection screen to demonstrate common issues.
  • Students did not need to sign up for an additional service due to institutional account (where a student had forgotten their institutional account they could use one of the tablets we provided).

There was also the added benefit of students discovering that Google Docs and Google Drive exist. For those who would like to know a little more about Google Drive vs Google Docs, see my slideshare.

Google Docs problems formatting references

Correct referencing style requires formatting such as italics and it would be futile to teach the students a workaround on this key skill due to technical constraints. With Google Docs mobile editor (when you view Google Docs through a browser on a tablet or mobile) the required formatting tools are not available. This problem did not affect students who brought their own laptop as they would use the standard web interface, but would affect those who brought their own tablet. To overcome this barrier where we provided students with a tablet, the tablet was preinstalled with the Google Drive app. The Google Drive app has a better interface and allowed for formatting such as italics. The Google Drive app also allowed for an ‘offline’ mode, should wifi drop out in the classroom.

Comments and conclusions

Any tutor thinking of using tablets or laptops in class should appreciate the setup time involved. This would include provision of any templated documents (as we did here within Google Drive) and setup of apps on devices, as well as the time at the start of the session for troubleshooting access or introducing students to a new tool. In this case, students may have spent longer than anticipated getting set up, however there was also plenty of discussion and questions about referencing which seemed worthwhile.

It is important that the technology does not distract the students from the intended learning aim. We attempted to keep this balance by making the technology have value through the feedback mechanism provided and enabling easy access to the guidance and template document without students needing to know anything about Google Drive other than how to get to it on their device.

Students will also appropriate the devices we provided/their own devices to achieve the task how they see fit. One group decided to keep to pen and paper, but used the tablets to refer to the detailed referencing guide provided online by the central University. They were encouraged to enter their work online to make the most of the feedback opportunity.

There was no formal evaluation for this task, but we hope that this trial was useful to the students for their referencing exercise and we learnt a little more about using devices for in-class sessions.


Thanks to Dr Antonios Roumpakis for looking at the role technology can play in teaching and granting permission for this write-up.

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