Google Docs has come a long way since its inception, when it was very limited compared to desktop applications. Now it has almost as many features as Office 365 (which has more features than most people could understand, let alone actually use). However, for most feedback purposes, you’re probably better off using a more conventional word processor like LibreOffice Writer, as I described in the previous article. Where Google docs comes into its own is real-time feedback.
Inspired by my late colleague Hossein Dabir, I started using Google Docs not for final marking, but for live feedback on drafts. My department for a long time had a rather antiquated policy of insisting that students write essay drafts on paper in class (which made them more like an exam than a draft). One of the beneficial side-effects of the pandemic was that I was able to get permission to have my students write online. I created a class folder in Google Drive and uploaded a template for each student (for more on templates, see the previous article). I then shared these with the students; depending on whether you want students to be able to see each other’s work, you give them access to the whole folder or just to their individual files. This part is admittedly rather tedious, though if you have a subscription to Google Classroom, it’s much easier.
When the time allotted to writing came, I would wander from file to file, writing comments, highlighting problematic parts, or sometimes even correcting errors directly. Because we were also present in Zoom, students could also ask questions or request that I look at a particular part of their work. Of course for this, you could use any program that allows messaging.
While this was conducted in class time because of department policy, it doesn’t have to be. Hossein told me he would have students write at home as normal, then when he got home in the evening he’d open all the files, write a few comments, then “go and watch Netflix for a while”!
As I said, you wouldn’t want to do final feedback like this, but it is great for coaching purposes, so I would suggest using it (or similar software) to provide an online (and less intimidating) equivalent of looking over students’ shoulders while they are writing.
The Final Showdown: Which Method is Best (for Me)?
You have probably guessed by now that I don’t think there is one feedback method that suits every need. As in so many cases, the tool depends on the job, and looking back, we can see that each of these tools will appeal to different users and admins.
PDF Annotation is clunkier than using a word processor but is best if you want to do everything inside Moodle (or some other LMS that has this feature). It’s also good if you have a graphic tablet and like marking things by hand.
Grademark has few redeeming features but one of them is that you can do everything inside Turnitin, so if you use Turnitin outside an LMS, this may be the way to go. From an admin’s point of view, it makes standardisation easier, and Turnitin has very good customer service.
Google Docs, as we’ve just seen, is great for realtime feedback.
Feedback files, though, remain the best solution all round, assuming they are combined with an LMS so you don’t go through email hell. They are flexible, they use skills you largely have off pat, and you get to keep your own copy of the student’s work. This is not for sentimental reasons; you really don’t want to go try recovering lost documents from cloud services! At the end, it comes down to control: with feedback files, you do things your own way, on your own device, with your own files.