Why I Use Google Docs to Teach Writing, Especially in the Age of AI

I follow a couple different Facebook groups about AI, each of which have become a firehose of posts lately, a mix of cool new things and brand new freakouts. A while back, someone in one of these groups posted about an app to track the writing process in a student’s document as a way of proving that the text was not AI. My response to this was “why not just use Google docs?”

I wish I could be more specific than this, but I can’t find the original post or my comment to it; maybe it was deleted. Anyway, this person asked “what did I mean?” and I explained it briefly, but then I said I was thinking about writing a blog post about it. Here is that post.

For those interested in the tl;dr version: I think the best way to discourage students from handing in work they didn’t create (be that from a papermill, something copied and pasted from websites, or AI) is to teach writing rather than merely assigning writing. That’s not “my” idea; that’s been the mantra in writing studies for at least 50 years. Also not a new idea and one you already know if you use and/or teach with Google docs: it is a great tool for teaching writing because it helps with peer review and collaborative writing, and the version history feature helps me see a student’s writing process, from the beginning of the draft through revisions. And if a student’s draft goes from nothing to complete in one revision, well, then that student and I have a chat.


I have been requiring students in all of my writing classes to write with Google docs for the last 12 or 15 years. I am myself a HUGE fan of Google docs, and I haven’t used MS Word regularly for years. The only other word processing application I consistently use is Scrivener, which is a combination of a word processor and a document organization app. I use it for keeping my journal and other writing experiments, and I used it to write my book about MOOCs. But other than that, I use Google docs for 95% of my words in a row type of writing.

Why do I use it to teach writing?

  • I started requiring students to use Google docs at a time when there was a lot more compatibility issues with word processors. That isn’t as much of an issue nowadays, but now EMU uses the Google Suite for email and the like– which is to say all of my students automatically have an EMU linked account. It’s also a lot easier to teach students how to do basic things like use tabs, line spacing, page numbers, etc., if they’re all using the same app (and yes, part of the process here is I still need to teach students how to do these things, especially in first year writing classes). Plus Google docs works well on even shitty computers that can still connect online.
  • Google docs works great for collaborating and for peer review. The biggest roadblock for making it work is getting users to remember to share their document with readers so they can comment and/or edit. Students forget to do this all the time, and to be fair, so does everyone else (including me). But once students remember to properly share their document, it works great. “Viewer” mode only allows users to only read a document. “Commenters” can write comments on another draft, but to make changes to the text (and to collaborate in real time), users need to make users an “Editor.”

I insist that students use Google docs from the beginning of their writing process, to keep modifying the original Google doc (more on that in a second), and to share the work in progress as part of peer review. Students in each group all comment on the same draft, and then individual students make revisions and share the same link to the same (but now changed) Google doc with me when they hand it in. So when I am reading/grading my students’ work, I can see the comments from peer review (I tell my students to not “resolve” or hide those comments), and I’ll often write my own comments on those comments– usually something like “I agree with Joan’s advice” to reinforce the idea that yes, students can give each other useful advice about their writing.

  • Then there’s the tool with Google docs that has become so useful for me with the rise of AI, the version history. The command/menu item for this is File-> Version history->See version history. You can only see the version history in documents where you have permission to edit, so I insist students make users (or at least me) “Editors.” Google docs automatically saves every few minutes, and it also keeps track of all of the changes made to a document. When you view the version history, you can access time-stamped versions of these changes going all the way back to the creation of the document itself.

Before AI, I used this feature in my teaching for two things. First, I sometimes look over the version history to see how a student put together their essay in the first place. Like every other writing teacher, I want my students to do the process (including pre-writing exercises), to work in advance and in stages, to not wait until the last minute to start writing, etc. The version history gives me a glimpse to what extent my students do or don’t do these things, which is a teachable moment.

Second, the version history is extremely useful in evaluating revisions. Depending on the assignment and the class, I often let students revise their projects for a better grade– again, a very common teaching of writing practice, and an important one. After all, writing in the “real world” is not about just generating text, which is where a lot of writing instruction begins and ends. Anyone who really writes will tell you that most of writing is revising and rearranging, especially in settings where a lot of other readers (often bosses of one sort or another) and editors have a lot of input on shaping the final text.

The problem with grading revisions is it isn’t always easy to figure out what the student actually revised because I don’t remember every detail of the original essay. With the document history though, I can very clearly see what the writer did to revise their previous draft. Now, I do actually read these revisions, and the new grade is not based on the number of things the student changed (though more changes are usually better than fewer); it’s based on the quality of those revisions. Looking over the history and comparing it to the revision reveals the extent to the student mostly “fixed stuff” versus re-seeing the essay and making larger and more complex revisions.

The version history can also show incidents that might be cheating, like AI or more garden-variety plagiarism. As I mentioned in the opening of this post, someone on one of the Facebook groups about AI posted a link to an app that this person developed that kept track of the changes a student writer makes to their document. No need for an app– this is what Google docs already does.

Here’s how this plays out in my teaching:

  • I always begin the semester with a brief tutorial about how to use Google docs. It’s even briefer nowadays because a majority of my students now have had some experience with Google docs, and it of course is very similar to MS Word. But besides explaining the sharing requirements and my requirements that students work with the same Google doc for each assignment– from when they first start writing, as they revise, for peer review, as they continue to revise, etc., until they hand it in (electronically– I collect links to Google docs in Canvas)– I am very up front as to why I require this. In other words, this isn’t some kind of secret surveillance I only reveal in a “gotcha” moment; this is part of how I’m teaching the course. Most of my students get my logic for doing this, too.
  • One thing I will be doing differently this coming school year is to be even more insistent on students working entirely in the original Google doc. Sometimes, some students don’t quite follow this rule. Some just make mistakes– they forgot and used MS Word, they create a new Google doc for a new draft, etc. But sometimes students will write their whole draft in Google docs, go through peer review, revise, and then copy the entire thing and replace it with a (nearly) identical draft. When I ask why, students sometimes say they prefer working in MS Word for last touches, and sometimes students tell me they used Grammarly to catch mistakes at the end.

Now, as I mentioned in a recent post, I don’t have any problem with students using Grammarly or anything else to help them with proofreading and revisions. However, I want to try to emphasize the importance of students actually making those changes themselves to the original document rather than simply assuming Grammarly (or any other AI) is correct. For one thing, we all know by now that AIs make mistakes all the time, and that includes Grammarly. It’s assistive intelligence, at least for now. But even more important, if students don’t merely copy and paste but instead manually make those changes that Grammarly suggests to their Google doc, then they will almost certainly learn more about the grammar/mechanical/stylistic issue the AI corrected.

This is like how I teach various computer things face-to-face: instead of taking the student’s mouse and keyboard and demonstrating how to do whatever task, I always explain the task step-by-step and make the student actually do the work. The reason for this is simple: it helps students learn that task more effectively. The same thing with writerly issues. If a writer has to manually fix problems like incomplete sentences or tense problems or comma issues or whatever, especially if they are the same problems and mistakes over and over, then I think there’s a much better chance that the writer will learn from that mistake and not make it next time– or at least not making the mistake as often.

And when it comes to those times where I suspect the student is cheating by just copying whatever ChatGPT told them or by copying too many things from Wikipedia or whatever, well, then that student and I chat. These conversations always result in some version of a confession.

Anyway, blog post about the usefulness of Google docs for teaching writing and especially in the age of AI posted. Like I said, I don’t think any of this is particularly groundbreaking or original on my part, but there it is.



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