top of page

How to Collaborate on Google Docs Like a Pro

Guest post by Dawn Casey-Rowe

My students are in love with the election cycle this year, thanks to Mr. Trump. "I watched the debates!" they said in higher numbers than ever before.

"Okay," I asked. "All entertainment aside, what do Democrats and Republicans believe?" One student began talking about a democratic republic. Another said Republicans are rich and Democrats generous.  

I started to tell them the answer. I stopped. It's always better to show than to tell, but it's even better to let them investigate and construct an understanding themselves.

"Your job is to figure out what they believe, and then match yourself up with the candidate who has the most in common with you on the issues that matter most." We were about to collaborate.  

The magic of collaboration is that the group brain is always more powerful than the sum of the individual brains. Soon a product emerges that is much better than it would have been otherwise--we learn from each other and we produce great things.

Remote and real-time collaboration is a real-world skill I've used working with people all around the globe as an author and while working in tech.  

Collaboration seems intuitive, but it's not. It's a skill that must be taught, but once a protocol is in place, students take it and run.

The beauty of real-time document collaboration is that it can be done with very few resources; whether you have a 1:1 classroom, BYOD, or a 0:0 classroom, you can provide a rich experience that extends far beyond the classroom walls and keeps kids engaged. Once the document and mission are set up, students can use whatever devices they have offsite; even if it means a trip to the library and an assignment with flexible deadlines.

These tips will help get you up and running with collaboration in your class or PLN.  

How to Collaborate Like a Pro Use Google.  

Google is a game-changer.  It allows people to create and build together in real-time. It is the standard for real-world collaboration with some of the most successful companies out there.  I highly recommend schools issuing student Gmail addresses and setting up a responsible use policy resting on Gmail and Google Drive. 

  • Still, if your school isn't there yet, all a student needs is his or her own Gmail address.  Good news -it's free!  Students can use Google Drive--and Google Classroom if your school supports it -on mobile apps as well.

  • Make and share group documents.  This might be a table, outline, or spreadsheet.  It can be done as a whole class, in small groups, or even with other school groups or classes.  Assign a project manager for each group assignment.  The project manager must create and share the document to all members of the group before work starts giving everyone access.  This will be the document owner.

  • Post Link to Share to Large Groups. If we're creating a large-group resource, I create a document with the privacy level set to "To Anyone with the Link Can Edit."  I keep a master document in case I need the original, and I place the link on Google Classroom wall.

If you do not use Google Classroom, don't worry!  Do one of the following:

  • Use a class email list to distribute the link.

  • Use Bitly to shorten the link, then post it somewhere visible in your room.

  • Create a QR code for students to scan with their phones. The code will drive them directly to the link, so they can join the document and collaborate right away.

Make sure everyone's logged in. You want all collaboration to be done by identifiable group members. If collaborators aren't logged in, you'll see an array of anonymous animals representing anyone currently on the document. Comments by "Anonymous Kangaroo," are tough to trace. Make sure all people are logged in using their real identities before collaborating starts.

Mind your mode. In Google docs, you will be in editing, suggesting, and viewing modes.  Every change is tracked. Students need to know that so they will take the job seriously.  This is great training in digital responsibility. Their boss will see every keystroke they make and any action on a work computer or network becomes discoverable. Teach that degree of seriousness and attention to detail now.  

Edit appropriately. Changing, drafting, and deleting are all part of the creation process, but sometimes collaborators have different thoughts on what should be included. When one person works hard on a section and finds it deleted or replaced, it creates problems.  

Before we start, I set up the following understanding:

  • If something needs a copy edit, note, or citation, go ahead and do it.  

  • Add or contribute to the document freely.

  • If you don't agree with something on the document, do not delete your fellow contributor's work.  Highlight the section that needs discussion, then use the "insert comment" feature. This way, the material can be tracked and discussed by concerned parties and a final version nailed down.

  • After the discussion has taken place in the comments, fix the material, and click "Resolve" in the comment box.

Teach feedback protocol.

Feedback is important, especially in collaborative documents. Feedback must be positive and actionable.  This helps the recipient know what to do to improve his or her section.  "That's bad!" shuts down conversation, whereas "I'd like more evidence," simply requires a little tweak.

Resolve comments as the document emerges. As items are discussed and refined, have students click "Resolve" so the comment will disappear.

Collaboration is a real-world skill students will use in their careers. It's something that benefits students, can add to a professional learning network, and helps share resources so nobody has to recreate the wheel. Thanks to the technology available, we can do these things at zero cost, enriching the world around us, and with a few courtesies, the experience should be beneficial and fun for all.

Dawn Casey-Rowe is a teacher and sustainability nut living in rural Rhode Island. She is the author of Don't Sniff the Glue: A Teacher's Misadventures in Education Reform. She writes on the issues of ed-tech, preparing students for success, and making schools the places we want and need them to be. The rest goes on her blog at, where she blogs about life, family, food, health, and surviving the challenges of daily living. Dawn has worked in insurance, education, tech, consulting, and fitness, and tries unsuccessfully to get off the grid. You can find her on her blog or on Twitter @runningdmc.

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in September 2015


bottom of page