The Issue: Michael and Michelle have been asked to make a joint presentation in class. They have been using PowerPoint, but both of them have different versions of the presentation on their computers at home.  They have attempted to reconcile the two presentations by emailing them to one another, but this has just increased the confusion as there are now several versions of the presentation (Michelle has not labeled the versions she has created).


When students share responsibility for an assignment, there are a number of benefits: the final product is the result of multiple perspectives and skill sets, students are motivated through the accountability to their partner (s), and the collaborators need to be deliberate in their organization to coordinate a final product that meets the deadline.

Moreover, the act of discussing, planning, and brainstorming an assignment can be as useful a learning experience as the actual content of the assignment since these are skills that address higher areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Where the project-based learning model is also used, students also develop important skills such as analytical thinking, problem solving, and presenting ideas to others.

Cloud-based applications such as Google Apps allows students and teachers to collaborate outside the classroom wherever they are.  Once a Google document, presentation, form, site, or spreadsheet has been created and shared, students can all work on it simultaneously.

In this video, the students are working simultaneously on a test review resource.  Their work here followed a class discussion of various questions about Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Following the discussion, each student was assigned section of the test review resource, and the typing began:

Using Google Apps, there are never multiple versions of the same document floating around: there is a revision history of the document that can be referenced at any time, but there is only one “live” version available for all collaborators.  It is also possible to track who has contributed what to an assignment or project.  Cloud-based application, then, provide opportunities for students to collaborate in the following ways:

  • Students can work together on a presentation, spreadsheet, webpage, letter, lab report, or problem set;
  • The class as a group can make a whole-class document, for example, a study guide for an exam or test; different students can be assigned different portions to prepare, or everyone can work on it simultaneously.  All participants, including the teacher, can work on the study guide which can be projected on a screen. (This is fun: everyone can see everyone else making changes to the document in real time).  Again, this reflects back to the notion of students taking ownership of their learning: instead of being fed information by a teacher, they work together in collecting information, identifying skill development, and producing a document;
  • A brainstorming session can be projected for all to see.   For example, when planning for a project, students can collaborate in assigning roles and assignments in an organized document that everyone has access to and can update at any time;
  • Students can provide feedback to each other on the work using the comments feature; comments can be addressed, replied to, or resolved;
  • Using a digital notebook such as a shared notebook in Evernote, students can collect information from a variety of sources (web clips, forwarded emails, notes, screenshots, photos, audio clips), organize them in one place, and have collective access to this notebook;
  • Students can convey their ideas through a variety of media: text, a slide presentation, a video, a website or blog, a poster or infographic, etc.

Clearly, students do not need to use technology to collaborate.  However, the 21st century tech tools, such as Google Apps, that allow a classroom to go paperless not only provide many opportunities for collaboration when students are not in the same physical space, but they also remove many of the obstacles or hurdles to seamless work and learning:

  • There is no confusion about which is the most current version of a document;
  • Everyone involved has access all the time;
  • Access is gained easily in Google Apps/through Gmail;
  • It is easy to revert to a previous version of a document and to see clearly who has worked on what;
  • The documents never can be left at home: as long as you have a computer that is online, you have access.


The twenty-first century classroom not only provides the tools and resources to help students develop higher-order learning outcomes through collaborative projects and PBL, but it also facilitates collaboration outside the classroom.  The simplicity of synchronization of Google Apps removes organizational obstacles for students while increasing opportunities for evaluating each others’ work, tracking contribution to and versions of  a document, and collectively brainstorming solutions to a problem.

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Beyond the Paperless Classroom by David Doherty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.