A Case Study: Using Google Documents as a Collaborative Writing Tool in Undergraduate Courses
By Jennifer T. Edwards
Tarleton State University
By Jennifer T. Edwards
This study focused on an upper-level communication course in which students worked in small groups to write collaborative research papers using Google Documents. The purpose of this study was to discover undergraduate students’ perceptions of Google Documents as a communication tool to write collaborative research papers in a classroom setting. To achieve the purpose of the study and to contribute to the existing literature on the subject matter, we employed the following research question: “What are undergraduate students’ positive and negative perceptions of Google Documents as a collaborative writing tool? Almost 20 students responded to the survey focused on the aforementioned research question. Most of the students involved in this study thought Google Documents is an effective teaching tool in the undergraduate environment.
Keywords: Google Documents, Collaborative Writing, Undergraduate Students,
Teaching and Learning
Keywords: Google Documents, Collaborative Writing, Undergraduate Students, Teaching and Learning
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to discover undergraduate students’ perceptions of Google Documents as a communication tool to write collaborative scholarly research papers in a classroom setting. A review of the literature indicated that a paucity of research exists on this subject matter.
To achieve the purpose of the study and to contribute to the existing literature on the subject matter, we employed the following research question: What are undergraduate students’ positive and negative perceptions of Google Documents as a collaborative writing tool?
Review of the Literature
Common Web 2.0 collaborative tools include the following: multimedia files, wikis, and blogs (Rienzo & Bernard, 2009). Through internet searches, it that seems content is finding people rather than the other way around. Web 2.0 sites enable users to create content, distribute the content on the internet, and to interact with other users to edit documents. Thompson (2008) contributed the following about Web 2.0 sites:
Thus content on the Internet is no longer static; it is changing and dynamic. A distinguishing Web 2.0 feature is the increasing significance of the individual user, as anybody can create and upload text, as well as audio and video, to the Internet. Another characteristic is the reliance on user participation, often referred to as the "wisdom of the crowd" and the "architecture of participation" (p. 19).
Through the various Web 2.0 technologies, higher education faculty can provide meaningful learning experiences for their students.
Web 2.0 Technologies and Collaborative Learning
There is a paucity of research focused on how educators can incorporate Web 2.0 technologies in their classrooms (Lockyer & Patterson, 2008; Rienzo & Han, 2009; Rollett, Lux, Strohmaier, Dosinger, & Tochtermann, 2007; Selwyn 2007). Social interactions serve an essential part of a student's educational foundation (Roschelle & Teasley, 1995). Computer-mediated communication and collaborative learning equips students with interactive abilities and problem-solving skills for small groups. When these students interact with peers and others through technology, this process serves as a foundation for future social interactions and peer learning. In addition, when students interact with their peers through technology, this process can also lead to individual learning (Stahl, Koschmann, and Suthers, 2006).
Google Documents: An Introduction
One increasingly popular cloud computing application, which is also a Web 2.0 technology, is Google Docs. Google Docs is a diverse online application geared for productivity and collaboration (Thompson, 2008). This online software requires each user to create a free Google account, which enables the user to import existing documents into their Google Documents account and they can create new documents. Google Documents is also similar to another Web 2.0 technology, a Wiki. According to Qiyun and Huay (2009), a Wiki is a web page or a collection of web pages created to enable anyone (who has editing rights) to create or contribute a pieces of the document. These authors also stated:
Google Docs is another web-based tool that works similarly with a Wiki, but unlike the Wikis which limit the editing process to "one-at-a-time", a Google Docs can allow several members to co-edit the same document simultaneously. This is particularly useful for activities that require students' input to be collected instantly (p. 196).
Most of the applications in the Google Documents suite seem to "lack the sophistication of MS Office, many typical composition, calculation, and presentation activities can be accomplished effectively" (Rienzo & Bernard, 2009, p. 124). Google Documents users can easily add additional users to their shared document. These shared documents enable multiple editors to interact with one another to simultaneously edit the document.
The Future of Google Documents
It seems that the future of Google Documents is limitless. Google, a symbol of online innovation, is expected to continue software innovation in Web 2.0 technology (Rienzo & Bernard, 2009). As Google will continue to innovate and change their Web 2.0 offerings, it seems that the educational environment will have to change as well. Rienzo and Bernard (2009) stated, "The obvious popularity of collaboration software in social networks, and the availability of free software tools on the Internet motivate educational organizations at every level to help students electronically connect and collaborate in preparation for a world in which team work is not constrained by geography" (p. 123). To prepare the students to use the Web 2.0 technology, it seems educators will need to teach their students how to use the technology.
Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) define social presence as the salience of one person in a mediated environment. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) provide a definition that builds on the prior definition by adding the following terms, "to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to other participants as ‘real people’” (p. 89). When this type of communication is similar to the most socially present communication method (i.e. - face-to-face communication), participants perceive the virtual communication experience as more friendly and communicative (Ji Hee, Hollenbeck, & Zinkhan, 2008). Aragon (2003) discovered over 12 different methods to establish social presence in the virtual environment. Some of these methods include posting introductions before beginning a conversation, providing frequent feedback, and incorporating video and audio in the virtual message.
In their writing groups, the students used Google Documents to communicate with one another and to maintain a level of social presence. For example, students left comments on their writing groups’ Google Document after reviewing the progress. Another example includes when students added encouragement and additional references to the Google Document to help another student progress through their writer’s block.
This study included 15 undergraduate students enrolled in Organizational Communication, an upper-level communication course. This course consisted of students from the following majors: communication studies, English, business management, Spanish, and human resources management. Through this course, the students were given an assignment focused on how organizations communicate with their customers using social networking websites and other types of interactive technology. These participants attend a mid-sized higher education institution in rural Texas.
Description of the Assignment/Activity
The students received the research paper group assignment at the beginning of the Spring 2010 semester. Through this assignment, the students chose their writing group members (three to four) people and their research topic. Every week, the students updated the appropriate section of their paper. Most of the students divided the paper by sections and two students from the writing group worked together to create each section. In addition to their work outside of the classroom, the students worked together on designated days inside of the classroom. Since the professor had access to the document, the students did not have to send the document to the professor.
Description of the Participant Questionnaire
During the last week of the course, the students were required to complete a questionnaire titled, “Google Documents: Class Questionnaire” to gather their perceptions of the Google Documents software. This questionnaire consisted of five demographic questions and seven qualitative questions. The demographic questions focused on the participants’ name, e-mail address, age range, academic classification, and major/minor.
The quantitative questions were:
The qualitative questions pertaining to this study were:
To analyze the data, the faculty researcher conducted a grounded theory-based content analysis to discover the emerging themes of the “Google Documents: Class Questionnaire”. Specifically, grounded theory-based content analysis requires the careful study of the artifacts in the research (i.e. - questionnaires) and then coding the content into categories. Grounded theory focuses on extracting categories as they emerge from the content, which is also known as open coding. The researcher decided to employ this particular research method, because qualitative content analysis enables qualitative researchers to “position, relate, and ultimately understand the abstractly inferred content from higher level processing of the text and interaction that is not directly revealed by counting or categorizing of the content” (Anderson & Kanuka, 2003, p. 176). After the researcher coded the students’ responses, they submitted the document to a doctoral student to see if they felt the students’ responses were in the correct codes. Then, we worked together to form the themes listed in the discussion section.
Each student in this study responded to six qualitative questions on the questionnaire. This section is divided by each of the six questions. Questionnaire items one and two were quantitative in nature and questionnaire questions three through seven were qualitative in nature.
Survey Question One
Survey question one stated, “Please rate your skills with the following Google Applications: [Google Documents]”. Students responded to this question by selecting one of the following answer choices: a) 1 - I have never used this feature on Google Apps, b) 2 - Less than the average user, c) 3 - As much as the average user, d) 4 - Better than the average user, and e) 5 - Much more than the average user.
Table 1. Students’ Self-Assessment of Google Documents Skills
|1 - Never Used||2 - Less than the average user||3 - As much as the average user.||4 - Better than the average user.||5 - Much more than the average user.||TOTAL|
|3 Students||3 Students||5 Students||3 Students||1 Student||15 Students|
In response to this question, 20 percent of the students who completed the survey stated that they never used Google Applications (i.e. - Google Documents) . Twenty percent of the students stated their skills were less than the average user. The largest number of responses (slightly over 30 percent) emerged in the “as much as the average user category”. Twenty percent of the study stated their skills were better than the average user. Only one student (almost 10 percent) stated their skills were “much more than the average user”.
Survey Questions Two and Three
Survey question two and three focused on the following statement, “I feel that my professor should incorporate cloud computing (i.e. - Google Documents) in their classes.” Eighty percent of students (12 students) stated they did feel that their professors should incorporate Google Documents in their classes. Twenty percent of students (three students) stated they did not feel that their professors should incorporate Google Documents in class.
Survey question three served as a follow-up question for the respondents who answered “yes”. This question stated, “If so, please explain why professors should incorporate cloud computing (i.e. - Google Documents) in their classes.” A majority of the students who answered “yes” to the prior question, contributed responses to these questions. The following themes emerged in response to this question: (a) convenient/accommodated busy schedules, (b) comments from professor/writing group members, (c) easier to update and edit the document, and (d) liked Google Forms feature.
Survey Question Four
Each student provided responses to survey question four, “What are your positive opinions of Google Applications (i.e. - Google Documents)?” These responses varied and emerged in the following categories: accessibility, easier to collaborate within the writing group, and liked Google Applications (Table 2).
Table 2. Students’ Positive Opinions of Google Documents
|Accessibility||Easier to Collaborate within the Writing Group||Liked Google Applications||TOTAL|
|2 Students||7 Students||5 Students||14 Students|
Survey Question Five
Each student responded to survey question five, “What are your negative opinions of Google Applications (i.e. - Google Documents)?” These responses emerged within the following categories: does not have all of the MS Word features, less reliable/more confusing than similar programs, accessibility, and did not like completing school work on-line. These responses are categorized in Table 3.
Table 3. Students’ Negative Opinions of Google Documents
|Does not have all of the MS Word features||Less reliable/more confusing than similar programs||Did not like completing school work on-line.||No negative opinions about Google Documents.||TOTAL|
|5 Students||5 Students||2 Students||3 Students||15 Students|
Survey Question Six
When students were asked for additional comments, two students contributed comments. One student stated how they were going to use Google Documents in the future, “I am going to incorporate Google Docs somehow into my teaching at the high school level.” Another student stated, “Overall I found it useful when working in a group.”
Conclusions for the Social Presence Theory
The social presence theory was utilized as the theoretical framework in my study. When applied to undergraduate writing groups in the hybrid course setting (when a course is held face-to-face and online), it seems that today’s college student prefers to work in groups that do not conflict with their personal schedules. Five students contributed comments focused on how Google Documents enabled them to collaborate more easily than in a typical face-to-face group setting. In addition to these students, two students contributed comments focused on the accessible nature of Google Documents. Through Google Apps, the students were able to establish social presence with one another through the following elements: sending and receiving instant updates on the document and constant access to the online document. Google Documents enabled the students to experience group collaboration in real-time.
Conclusions for Google Documents
Most of the responses to the “positive opinions of Google Documents” questionnaire item emerged in the “easier to collaborate within the writing group” category. Most of the responses to the “negative opinions of Google Documents” questionnaire item emerged in the following categories: “does not have all of the MS Word features” and “less reliable/more confusing than similar programs”. One interesting aspect of the categories related to the “negative opinions of Google Documents” questionnaire item was the formation of the “no negative opinions about Google Documents” category, which consisted of three student responses. When the students were asked for additional comments, one of the two students who contributed comments stated they would like to incorporate Google Documents in their future career as a high school educator. Most of the students involved in this study thought Google Documents is an effective teaching tool in the undergraduate environment.
Through the results of this study, we provide the following implications for higher education faculty and staff. College faculty who are considering adopting Google Applications (i.e. - Google Documents) should try using the software for a few months (maybe a collaborative research project with another professor) before incorporating the cloud computing software with their students. In this study, the students relied on their professor for all technical support.
Suggestions for Future Research
This research was limited to 15 students attending a rural university in Texas. As a result of the limitations and results of this study, future researchers might want replicate this study to include a pre and post-course questionnaire and an experiential and control group. In addition to offering the questionnaire before and after the course, future researchers might want to expand the number of students in the Google Applications (i.e. - Google Documents) study. In this study, the researcher focused on writing groups in hybrid undergraduate courses. However, future researchers might want to focus on individual students’ papers.
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