Rest assured: anonymity and confidentiality will be preserved here.   No mention of the school, fine as it was, or my fellow visiting committee members, excellent as they are, will be uttered here.

I write often about the value contemporary digital tools can offer our students and ourselves in learning to be better collaborators, and I want to share the very successful experience I had this week using google docs for such collaboration with an accreditation visiting team of 13 as we worked together for four days preparing our substantial report.

We took the bold step (not that bold) of being the first team in our accrediting association to forgo flashdrives in preparing the report and instead using, nearly exclusively, shared google word docs for our collaborative report writing.

Traditionally in my experience of about eight visits, individual team members each write their own report sections on their own laptops.   Then, commonly, they print them out, and share their printed copies with colleague/team members, asking for notes and mark-ups on their drafts.   To do so they have to go through the motions of printing, getting the papers to their colleague and back (as everyone is moving around), and then deciphering the comments/markings on the paper, and entering the changes manually back into the draft document.  Sometimes versions are emailed back and forth with changes made, which can be more efficient, but I always end up with multiple versions of the same document, and have made changes in one version while someone is editing an alternate version, and then have to reconcile what have become two divergent versions– and I have to keep track of which document is now the current and updated version.    Then everyone has to ensure getting the right version to the chair, by flash drive hand-off or email.    When the group works together as one on drafting the major commendations and recommendations, things are written up on a whiteboard and then have to be transcribed later into a document which can be emailed out to all but doesn’t allow for shared editing.

Instead– consider the value of working together on shared docs as we did.   The joy of there always being only one version of a document, never multiples that must be reconciled and identified as the most current or accurate.   The delight of having multiple editors working simultaneously, with no passing back and forth, whenever they wish and from wherever they are.   The chair having always, at any moment, access to check in and observe how each and every report is proceeding, able to identify emerging themes in the write-ups of a dozen different team members, and then upon completion having at the ready every document in one place.   During group work, instead of writing on butcher paper or whiteboard, every comment is transcribed into a fully shared group document, which everyone can monitor in real time on their home screen, contribute to, edit together, and have immediate and consistent access to.   We then individually voted with our initials on the shared document containing all suggested major commendations and recommendations, and everyone was able to track which suggestions were emerging as the popular favorites.

Our process worked very smoothly, and we only had a few small glitches (below).   At the end of our group work together, several committee members, unprompted, shared with me their enthusiasm for the use of shared documents in the process.   Let me quote some of them:

it really made a huge difference in streamlining the process of sharing and editing each other on our reports

It standardized our input and our writing because it made it very easy to see and follow a template

It made easy for us to all collaborate on a constant basis.

It saved time– we didn’t have to take it off of pieces of paper on a wall, we entered it as we went in real time.

It was a wonderful introduction to the collaborative opportunities of web 2.0 tools

It was my first time working with google docs and it was really easy

It just made the whole process less stressful because there was no time required and no delay for the transfer from the walls into documents and all the printing required.   There was previously in other procedures a crunch for time as corrections were entered and new iterations created but now the document was continuously edited in real time very efficiently.

I was impressed by the surprised and value of real time editing– it seems like something that would be cumbersome or tricky but it wasn’t– real time editing really worked.

The immediacy of recording our collaborative work and seeing our process unfold and advance in real time was so much more efficient and allowed us to maintain our focus on the content

This is so much better than the paper on the wall approach..

Google docs is so efficient and fun that it inspired this life long calligrapher to buy her first laptop.

It was so much fun to watch multiple team members work simultaneously on the same document– it was like you could watch their thinking and follow their logic and train of thought.  One of my favorite moments was when one particular paragraph elicited a lot of attention and all of a sudden you could watch six or seven different colored cursors all pop in on the paragraph at the same time and begin editing.   You’d think that it’d be complicated to manage all that, but really it was very intuitive and it worked.

A few caveats:

  1. Internet access is essential.  One of our members had no luck at all with his school-lent laptop getting online and so was somewhat excluded from participating in this kind of collaboration, though we made sure he could look on on someone else’s screen and vote that way too.
  2. Participants have to be very careful about erasing and deleting the work of others, which can happen accidentally far too easily.
  3. Those familiar with working with google docs know that sometimes the server slows or act a bit erratically, and it can be quite annoying.  Sometimes the documents don’t readmit pre-approved users immediately; sometimes the responsiveness of the online document is sluggish.  I anticipate this will continue over time to improve and resolve itself.

I’ll share quickly here my particular steps, but this is all pretty obvious to experienced google doc users.

1.   I uploaded the report template provided by our accrediting association into google docs, and then saved it as a report section (Finance, Community, etc).  I copied it until I had made individual documents for each section of the report.   I then shared each report section with the two or three committee members assigned for that section, retaining of course ownership and editing/viewing privileges for each.

2. Committee members in some cases began their drafts on their own hard drives, but I urged them to feel comfortable and most quickly shifted into composing directly into the online document for their report section.   As I learned things and had suggestions for reports, I would pop in to the appropriate document and add a note– be sure to explore this topic, or consider adding this or that commendation or recommendation.   Pretty regularly committee members would let me know they had drafted their sections and asked me to check in and let them know if I thought they were on the right track, and without any difficulty I popped into their document, reviewed and left them a note.  Regularly two team members worked together on the same document, adding their thoughts and editing each others drafts; sometimes a report lead asked me to add a third person with permission and I could do so easily.

3.  On the last evening, we all sat in a circle, screens up, and one fine team member took notes as each of us offered our suggested major commendations and recommendations.   No need for it to be up on a wall so we could avoid repeating each other because we all had instant access to the list word for word as ideas came forward.    At the end, I asked each team member to put their initials by five of the 10-20 majors for each category so we could see which were most important, I welcomed also folks to make little notes, such as “combine number 2 and number 7.”    Early this morning we rearranged the lists, merging some as the suggestions dictated and prioritizing those with the most support.    We then went through the set again, and did some group editing in real time, with sometimes as many as four or five editing the same bit at the same time.

4.  Our visit together having concluded, I know all reports are there for me on my google docs folder.   In the next few days I’ll download and consolidate them into one word document report, and then delete the online versions for confidentiality reasons.

Whatever the project, when working on report writing with a team consider the many advantages of shared online documents for more effective and efficient collaboration.   It is easy, valuable, time-saving, and fun.