Introducing Google Docs To Your Class: Tips for introducing online collaboration to students 1 of 3

In 2008 I was invited to write a series of blog posts for the Official Google Docs blog. I have decided to repost them here to highlight some of the challenges I faced at the time and in an effort to help you, not only with the use of Google Docs but also other online collaborative tools.


Modelling expected behaviour and good practice first

As our first Google Docs project began to gather pace last school year, I realised that the children were finding it difficult to work together. With hindsight it is easier to recognise that the children were not only being introduced to a new piece of technology (the Docs tool) but also their traditional way of working was to be challenged by the new concept of working collaboratively in an online document.

It was clear that the children were unsure about the way they should be working together. They were each working on their own laptop and it was not the technical side of things that they struggled with, it was the fact they were expected to interact with others in their group as well as use a screen. I found it very useful to model the process. Just as I would if I were showing the children a style of writing in Literacy or a type of stretch in PE. I worked with a colleague on an example document and gave the class a running commentary as to what we were doing. As we worked we talked to each other and I underlined some of the key features of what made that short demo collaboration successful for us.

I think that every class of children will respond differently to the challenge of working together in an online doc, but it proved incredibly valuable to our classes to model what is expected of them. In September, I’ll have a new class and I will be keeping in mind this idea from the outset. Another idea would be to encourage the students to demonstrate the concept to the class – this is much harder to show but valuable nonetheless. I will be planning in time to model the technical and communications side of working together and also reflective time with the groups throughout the project to discuss and review the process of collaborating.

Introducing group collaboration: entire class, working in pairs, and groups of four

With the 9 and 10 year-olds in my classes, I found it valuable to take small steps towards an open collaborative project with 4 or 5 group members. As I introduced Google Docs to the class, we began to work together on documents that everyone could contribute to, revealing the ways that it worked and how it updates. In many respects this could be labelled as modelling the process that the children will in turn use later on. It proved valuable to be able to prove the concept to the children in a simple “step in, step out” controlled type contribution, nothing protracted. We added ideas to a large grid within a spreadsheet, with the children being told to choose any cell to write in – you could also invite them to fill in some information about themselves next to their name in a class list document. This single contribution to a whole class document was our first step.

It was followed by children working together in pairs on one document – a laptop each, sitting next to each other and sharing the document between them both. Finally the children worked in a larger group of 4 in a more lengthy collaboration as part of a Geography project. I believe it is important to progressively build up to bigger group collaboration and for this coming academic year I will be taking the same approach in developing the children’s collaboration experience over the first 6 weeks of term.


Next: It’s About the Communication Not The Tool


  1. The collaboration feature of google docs is the best choice for the academic medium.

    I have created a small tool that allows use of google docs just like you would use a regular office suite.
    If you find it useful, it’s free for academic purposes.
    You can find it at

  2. How do you use Google Docs with classes of 9 and 10 year-olds when it is required that they be 13 to have an account?  I am finding this to be my biggest obstacle in truly embracing the many tools available.

  3. It sounds like there was a cultural barrier to being open about the work you do – I suppose we also have to be sensitive to the fact that some students’ learning is not suited to being together or in a team. There has to be a balance and the opportunity to establish these skills, but also an appreciation for how appropriate it is to use them.

  4. It is all about communication (see the second post in this series) and if students don’t understand that it doesn’t matter which online tool you use with them. If they cannot work as a team, together, supporting each other, respecting each others contributions – there is not much hope projects like this will be successful.

  5. I was a responsible for managing the implementation of a “shared data environment” (SDE) project in the 1990’s which involved an early incarnation of google docs. The target audience comprised of teams of electronics engineers and mathematicians operating in different countries and organisations both sides of the Atlantic. 

    The most significant problem surrounding the project was the change of culture. Everyone knew how to share their respective bits of information, quite a few were unwilling to do so. Finally had to arrange a number of “culture change” workshops in UK and USA. 

    —  You can take a horse to water …….

  6. Great suggestions Tom for introducing collaborative work to young children. In my experience, this is rarely covered sufficiently in Primary schools, leaving many children at a disadvantage in their secondary schools, where the skill is much more regularly used. On two recent occasions my teenage son ended up having to complete work as homework – as did the rest of his class – as the attempted strategy of having the children complete the work together as a school based project had been unsuccessful.

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