My Proposal to use Google Docs for Online Reporting to Parents

What follows is a proposal I submitted to my headteacher regarding a trial of the use of Google Docs (as part of the Education Apps) to deliver online reporting to the parents in my class. I have spent considerable time working with Google Docs both on a personal level, organising planning files and within the classroom as a tool to support learning. The ease with which you can share a document is central to the idea that I could share a collaborative report throughout the whole year – updated at times when units of work are completed or at opportune moments of review.

My headteacher gave me his consent for me to explore the idea and I suggested to him posting the original proposal for reaction from a wider audience, he was also keen for this to happen – as this post and hopefully your reactions will help us develop and refine the whole concept.

What is the proposal?

I am proposing to use Google Docs as a platform to trial the delivery of online reporting to the parents and children in my class for this academic year 2008/2009.

What is the National Picture?

It is clear that the government is positioning itself to deliver real-time online reporting by the target year of 2010 for secondary schools and 2012 for all primary. According to Schools Minister Jim Knight:

“Real time reporting will deepen the school-parent relations and is not a substitute for regular personal contact with teachers. Effective technology systems can actually significantly cut the staff workloads – but it has to be to be manageable for individual schools and meaningful for parents.” Jan 2008

The aim is to develop a real-time reporting system that means parents will be able to access frequently updated information on children’s achievement, progress, attendance, behaviour and special needs wherever, whenever they want.

According to this announcement from the DCSF Primary schools must meet the basic requirement to provide information to parents covering achievement, progress, attendance, behaviour and special needs, on a timely and frequent basis – this should be at least once per term by September 2010 and the real time requirement by 2012.

According to Tanya Byron:

“Schools already using online reporting methods have noted that teachers spend less time in total producing three reports each year online than they did when producing just one by hand. The anytime, anywhere aspect of online reporting allows teachers to have greater control and flexibility of the use of their time. And, importantly, online reporting allows teachers to see the ‘bigger picture’ for each student because they are able to view grades and progress in other subjects.”

Why Google Docs?

This tool presently has three main advantages:

  1. It is already in place to be used within school, therefore no new software or programme has to be installed or found.
  2. It is free – we will not need to buy into any contracts or purchase new software.
  3. It delivers the real-time aspect of the online reporting requirement. This is because parents and children will have complete access throughout the year to the document. It is always on.

What will be the differences with the current end of year system?

We will have to unlearn some things. The sense of a formalised report at one time of the year will no longer exist. In this proposed system the parents (and children) will have continued and timely access to a single document that is the child’s report. That document will be periodically updated by the teachers as various units of work are completed and key assessments are finished throughout the year – not just at the end of the year. There will be key contributions from the children as they also comment on the work they have done and explore their own targets for improvement. Parents will have room to make comments based upon the contributions from teachers and children.

Will it increase the workload for a teacher?

For many their first reactions will be that it will, as you are in effect reporting throughout the whole academic year. However in my opinion the timely nature of reporting extends to the teachers too. I believe I will be able to better report to parents if I have the opportunity to just write comments about, for example, a history unit completed at Christmas time. As opposed to doing it 2 terms later alongside all of the other subjects. I believe I will find it easier to write subject comments if it is all fresh in my mind, consequently this will increase the quality of reporting to parents.

When would the report be updated?

I would expect that comments are updated when major units of work are completed in Design and Technology or History for example. Specific times throughout the school year must be negotiated for adding comments about Literacy and Numeracy and some of the other subjects.

What about parents who do not have access at home?

Although more and more families in the community have access to the internet, due to lowering costs, not all of the children in my class (2008/09) have access at home. For the 2 or 3 families that do not have access I will operate an open door policy in terms of the access to the report document at school. The parents will be welcome to come into the classroom immediately after school and access the document.

What is the teacher’s role?

As the year progresses I will schedule times that I will add comments about particular subjects – at the end of units of work, after major pieces of work in the unit are completed. I will also plan time for children to add their comments about the work that has been completed and support them in adding examples of what they have done. I will also collect evidence that is suitable for the online form of the report. I will notify the parents when these updates have been completed or if there is something that needs their attention.

What is the parents’ role?

In the document there will be room for the parents to add comments and feedback about the examples of work and subject comments about their child.

What is the children’s role?

The children will take an active role in updating the document with examples of their work and comments about their learning. At the end of units of work a structured class activity will see them remark upon what they have learned from a subject unit and the highlights from it.

What is the headteacher’s role?

The fourth collaborator on the report document will be the headteacher who will act as overseer on the process throughout the year. A final end of year comment will still be present but the document will be open to any comments from the headteacher throughout the year.

What might the report look like?

The report will be similar to the existing paper version with areas for subject comments. Room must be made for comments from all of the different stakeholders. Photos of the children working will be able to be included as well as examples of work. Links to other online documents and work examples will be used.

What needs to be in place if we were to begin?

  • Parents consent.
  • Email addresses need to be collected from the parents.
  • Schedule of commenting mapped to curriculum.
  • Information letter to parents.
  • An agreed report layout in Google Docs – what would we want to include in the report?
  • What will happen to effort and achievement grades?
  • What do we need to unlearn about the current reporting system.
I have much to iron out but would really appreciate your take on the idea, pitfalls that you might see and your general commentary on the proposal. Your comments will help us to develop the proposed system.

  1. @Barrie – the security of the document shared between the children, adults and the teacher would need to be paramount. It is the major hurdle that I need to satisfactorily overcome if this proposal is going to be anything more.

    I have found this site a useful source of info on Google security arrangements etc.

    One solution that occurs to me is that the document could be retained amongst the Google accounts on the domain. In other words not shared to a parent’s 3rd party email address and so raising a doubt about protecting that access. The parents could access the document using the child’s domain login – that way only logged in users could access it. The parents’ changes to that document would not be tagged with separate users but that would be a trade off for better security.

  2. Great news: someone else using it too. We are using a pilot this year for e-portfolio as with all google products you can easily share this with anyone you want – i.e future employers etc. One question I am regularly asked is: what about Security and the hosting being on Google servers? What would you say to that, I am interested what you think


  3. Here in NZ at our school (primary) we send home a “journal” of children’s work at the end of every term (we have 4 10 week terms). The journal includes work samples and specific assessment items from maths, english and other curriculum areas we have covered during the term. I can see that this would translate very well into a combined digital portfolio/report. I’ll keep watching to see how this works out for you.

  4. I really like this idea as essentially in the long run I think it will save teachers time and effort. The end of the year seems to be a real pressure point for teachers and often we are reporting on topics that finished eight or nine months previously.

    Also, the idea that children can have input or even add to a document makes the report writing process a more holistic enterprise.

  5. Wow tom what a fantastic trial you are taking on. We have just started working with google docs amongst the teachers in Year 4 and 5 to share our planning. We are looking at using it with our children in class. I’ll be interested to hear the what the response will be from all involved.

  6. Tom,

    I think its a great idea, and in principle transferable to Secondary education. However there is an incredibly long way to go with this.

    As an example, I arrived in school today to find that Google Docs is blocked for staff. I asked for it to be unblocked for staff and pupils (pushing my luck I know!) to be told that it was not possible as it is a ‘security risk’. When pushed it was explained that as private pupil data could be copied onto GDocs and shared it was a risk. I was offered the opportunity to have the specific url of my spreadsheet unblocked after it had been vetted. This logic seems to wipe out the use of the entire read/write web in my school 🙁 For anyone interested here is the sheet I am trying to share with my class, I think it’s use is fairly self explanatory:

    A small example of what we’re up against!

    Back to your idea, as others have said I think you need to start small. And above all I think that expectations on the volume of reporting by staff should be made as clear as is possible. Parent’s will expect a lot otherwise and if limits are not set at the start you may run into trouble.

    Best of luck and keep us updated!

  7. Hi Tom – fabulous ideas. Love the concept.
    My thoughts…
    Start small. A test bed … whether this be a pilot group of parents or perhaps one aspect of the curriculum. This way you can begin to see what the potential demands will be …and develop contingency plans that can be put in place for when you decide go to a wider audience.

    I believe that there will be greater expectation upon you to interact with an extra audience online – namely the parents.

    Being a parent i know that given the opportunity to ‘look in’ on my child’s progress would be wonderful. I am cognizant of monopolizing the teacher’s time…but this is not always the case for some parents. How could you deal with the possibility of being overwhelmed by parent questions about student work? How will you address expectations about timely feedback to students/ parents.What rules/guidelines might you need to put in place?

    Some guidance might be needed for parents on how to give feedback.

    My experience with working online is that it can be more demanding due to the added opportunities to interact with students.

    Other issues…
    How can one ensure that it is the child’s work when you need to know that it is? Do you only accept assessment pieces that are completed during school time?

    Will you be able to establish differences for parents regarding … assessment AS learning (role of student), assessment FOR learning (role of teacher), assessment OF learning (summative – evaluating what the student has learned).

    Look forward to hearing about your journey with this.
    Best wishes,
    Cairns, Australia

  8. WOW Tom,

    Would love to follow your implimentation pathway! Can you maybe create a fictional student for all of us to “play” along with you?

    I always find that it is only when you start implementing something realtime that you come to grips with the challenges!

    Keep on being brave!


  9. Hey Tom,

    I LOVE the idea of changing the nature of the end of the quarter/end of the semester report card type system that we currently use to one that is more dynamic and meaningful.

    However, I don’t think a google spreadsheet, at least on a system-wide basis is the answer. What happens if other teachers in the grade level want to enter data on the spreadsheet?? How will this data be archived from year to year?? I know the spreadsheet can be shared out with others and so forth, but I just don’t think that in a complicated school scenario where multiple users would need access to the information that this would work.

    I think we need an moodle/drupal like open source student information system of some type…the proprietary SIS tools that we all use in our schools are fairly week and often time VERY expensive. They all have their pros and cons.

    Again, I think your premise of changing the nature of the reporting process is a good one, but I’m not so certain a shared google spreadsheet can replace (or even compliment) a SIS.


  10. Tom, I do like the idea of “real” reporting to parents online. This is a great idea and definitely worth a try. I share some of the same concerns as Doug Belshaw (particularly around the teacher time commitment), but our current reporting methods in California don’t give much information beyond a grade and, perhaps, a comment for behavior. I will be interested in hearing how this goes!

  11. Wow Tom! This is an idea that addresses the issues of meaningful reporting practices head on! I was only just reading Angela Stockman’s blog & her thoughts about Formative assessment. Your ideas are bold but ‘do able’. I’ll certainly be interested in how it goes!

    It was interesting to read Tanya Brown’s points. I like the aspect of your idea where the Teacher , Parents and students have a role in the reporting process…Parents & students no longer ‘passive’ in the process.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on this…they have certainly inspired me!

  12. It’s a great idea, Tom, but a very time-intensive one. And for that reason, unfortunately – along with the fact that some potentially-sensitive data will be sitting off-site on a companies servers – I can’t see many secondary schools taking on board the idea.

    Continuous dialogue with parents is something we should all be aiming at as educators. Unfortunately, it’s a time issue. The average secondary school teacher probably has around 10-12 different classes of 30 students. That’s around 350 students in total. If they spent even just 2 minutes writing something about each student each week, that would be 700 minutes (= over 10 hours). That’s obviously too much of a commitment, unless their teaching load was significantly reduced.

    I think that we’re approaching a tipping point with technology in education. We’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about how it *can* fundamentally change teaching and learning, but innovative educators are being held back by outdated bureaucratic irrelevancies.

    Kudos to your Head for letting you explore the idea. I’m really glad that someone of your talents is in a place where they’re not scared to be at the forefront of change. 🙂

  13. Great idea as Google Documents are so versatile, they can serve as an e-portfolio and reporting to parents. I like the idea because you can mix, add and link to other relvant examples that are stored right in Docs, providing access and authority is only a check box away.

    I think the biggest value here, it that the information is interactive, current and accessible to parents. By allowing them to contribute with comments you create involved community. I would further consider how to scaffold this to parents to ensure they embrace and utilise this great idea.

  14. Personally I like the idea of Google Docs for reporting progress. It provides a 2-way line of communication which traditional reporting does not. It also provides the opportunity for pupils to share work with parents, and for parents to be more involved in the education of their children. (and don’t forget it’s green!)

    My only concern would be the security, especially given the new guidance BECTA has published (which will have big implications for data protection right down to existing VLE’s). Check out the guidance at

    Keep us informed on your progress 🙂

  15. @Pam, Glen, Janice, Cheryl – Thanks for your comments @David, the ability to share whole folders of work will allow our kids to drop in examples they have produced in Google Docs throughout the year, rather than linking out from one document.

  16. Great idea – similar uses have been tried for adults as an alternative to e-portfolios and I intend to use google docs for my course for university staff based on a current paper based progress checklist.

    Google are working on folder sharing which will make this sort of use much more flexible.

  17. A really interesting approach to reporting Tom. I look forward to reading how it all works out. It has to be bette,r and more informative, for parents to be able to see how their child is doing on a more regular and timely basis. I can see great benefit in adding to a report as you go along, whilst it is still fresh in your mind, rather than a couple of months later.

    Good luck with the trial.

  18. Tom,

    I believe that having each child’s “portfolio” on a separate google doc solves the problem of who can access a specific student’s information. I like the online portfolio option you are pursuing. Good luck in your efforts.

  19. This sound like a very interesting idea. I look forward to following your progress. I have been investigating the use of e portfolios. I have found all sorts of different ways schools are doing this.

  20. This looks like a great>Tom, we are beginning to use Google Forms to collect information from our staff of 250, when we are collating information. That part is working well. I will be interested in watching your progress.

  21. @Nick – thanks it will be interesting to see what occurs with the pilot. It is such a shame that some Scottish LA filtering blocks some of the most powerful tools on the web.

    @John – thanks for the comment. GDocs can be configured to share just one document. The statutory requirements for reporting to parents would of course be met as a starting point. The timing of updating the report is something I want to explore – but the premise is that regular, smaller chunks of reporting will spread the burden and workload that I have felt.

  22. Fantastic idea, Tom: I would love to see how the pilot goes especially in terms of getting parents engaged in the process.

    Here’s a rare example when I envy my English colleagues – in this part of Scotland, google docs is banned by Local Authority web filtering policy.

    Good luck!

  23. Interesting idea.

    Can Google Docs be configured in such a way that a parent can only see documents relating to their child, and will this be easy to achieve, or a major admin task to keep up?

    How is progress going to be reported on in National Curriculum terms?

    How often will teachers be required to update reports, and what would the update entail?

    Have you looked at the online assessment, tracking and reporting system called Incerts? At present this system records assessments, tracks pupil progress and generates target reports and curriculum reports with bank level security. The only step left to take is to organise secure parental access. The only downside is the cost. But the potential saving in teacher time more than outweighs this.

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