Teaching with Google: My perspective

In my last post in this series I discussed what my students thought of using Google Documents to collaborate on their group translation projects. Now that I’ve (finally) finished marking the assignments, I thought I’d write a little about what I thought of working with the application to revise and mark the projects.

First, the advantages:

  1. Having the students share their documents with me meant I didn’t have to have my inbox cluttered with dozens of emails from students sending me various files: source text, target text, descriptions of their individual contribution to the project (all mandatory) and spreadsheets of their terminology or documents containing their group discussions (both optional but frequently submitted). The documents remained on Google’s server, so I didn’t have to download them and then attach them to emails to send the corrected files back to the students.

That’s all the good points I can think of right now. Unfortunately, what’s really on my mind at the moment are the disadvantages:

  1. Google Documents does not have a record/track changes feature. This was definitely the biggest drawback to using the application. Instead of being able to indicate the corrections just by turning on the track changes feature (which, in OpenOffice then automatically marks corrections in a different colour), I had to highlight each passage that needed revisions, then change the font colour manually and type in my correction. This took a lot of time, because it meant I had to revise each document twice: once in Google to show the students their mistakes and my corrections, and then once in the final document, which I was preparing in OpenOffice. And this leads me to the second disadvantage.
  2. Google doesn’t handle various advanced word-processing features very well. These include automatically generated table of contents, and tables, bullets, and lists, all of which were found in the 40-page text we were working on. Because of this, I wanted to produce the translation directly in OpenOffice, working directly on a copy of the original French source text file. However, unless I copied and pasted one paragraph at a time, the text I copied was pasted into my OpenOffice document within a frame, which would have ruined the formatting of the final document. So, for every paragraph, I had to copy the student translation, paste it into the OpenOffice document, make any necessary corrections, and then go back to the Google Document and mark up the text so that students could see what changes I was recommending. Very time-consuming.
  3. The default font for a Google Document seems to be a sans-serif typeface, which was not the font used in the French text. Most of the groups didn’t change the default font, so I had to do it myself when I copied and pasted the translation back together.
  4. Students didn’t always work directly in Google Documents. Some of them (as they explained in their reports) typed up their translations in Word, then copied and pasted the final versions into Google. And, when they revised their translations, they often did so as a group, with one person entering the revisions after everyone had agreed on what needed to be changed. This meant I usually couldn’t use the revision history feature of Google Documents to see which students had proposed which changes. I had expected the students to work primarily from home and to collaborate online through Google Documents, but they often got together in person, with one student logged onto a computer to either translate or revise the text based on group input. This wasn’t necessarily a Google-specific drawback, however; it just shows that students used the application in a way I didn’t expect.

Overall, I would have to say that I was surprised by the number of disadvantages of using Google Documents to mark and revise the student projects. While the students had mainly positive things to say about the application (with the exception of those who had a number of bullets or tables, which did not always convert properly to and from a Google Document), I found the experience inconvenient.

While I will have students use it again next year, I think I will have them email me a final version of their translation in .doc format so that I can then use the track changes feature to mark the translation and quickly add it to the final document. They can still share the rest of the files with me through Google, as this will reduce the number of files I need to upload and download, and help me spend less time editing.

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