students outside

Student Accountability, Google Docs, and Digital Peer Review

By Daniel Dissinger

In-class peer response is tedious for students. Most of the time they feel forced to treat it like a performance for instructors, and instructors usually feel unsatisfied with the quality of feedback. I’ve found myself jumping in and out of student groups just to ensure students get the best feedback possible. But, like a fear-based system of surveilling and grading student feedback, participating too much creates a paternalistic classroom setting, hurting student autonomy.

The educator and philosopher Paulo Freire wouldn’t be proud of these dynamics. He believed the educational experience should be experimental, adaptable, and transferable, so if we agree, we need to enrich peer response with these same qualities. Freire writes, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (72). I hear you, Freire: we must invite students to discuss their work, collaborate on revisions, and enter a space where they can develop critical ideas outside paternalistic academic restraints.

Empowering Students with Google Docs

The Freirean approach is a challenge, but one tool that can be helpful in meeting that challenge is Google Docs. Because Google Docs is a digital platform, instructors can move peer-response sessions outside official class time. Setting up the folders on Google Drive for drafts, being loose about what constitutes an official draft, and only allocating a small amount of in-class time to touch base and clarify comments reinforce a high level of student accountability and autonomy. This transfer of authority builds trust between instructors and students, as well as between the students. Learning communities emerge independently instead of being forced on students. Google Docs provides a judgment-free writing space for student peer response that is more focused on critical contributions than grammatical errors. It eases linguistic pressure and expectations for students because it mirrors social platforms they’re already engaging outside class. These digital spaces are less about the performance of intellect and more about valuable exchanges of ideas. Usually, instructors will set down all the peer-response parameters. With Google Docs, you can let students set the ground rules and trust they’ll use their time wisely. You can allow them to succeed or fail. Basically, you can treat them like the adults they truly are.

These days, writing assignments are more focused on students’ developing ideas, contributing to scholarly discourse, and leading with their perspective. As Keith Gilyard notes, “Education is deemed authentic . . . to the extent that it demands active student involvement and deliberately aids in the formation of student critical consciousness” (27). The digital environment promotes freer, more authentic feedback, because students aren’t being critiqued on how their feedback looks—feedback is more centered on value. When instructors make the rules, set the linguistic parameters, differentiating bad comments from good comments, they marginalize students who can’t perform academic jargon. These restrictions devalue our students’ literacy and language and limit student expression in what’s meant to be an inclusive learning opportunity.

Encouraging Real-Time Collaboration and Use of Digital Materials

One complaint students have about in-class peer response is that there is never enough time to apply the feedback and revise during a class session. This work gets done afterward, which students say defeats the purpose of peer response for them; the momentum is killed, suggestions are forgotten, and verbal comments are wasted. Google Docs creates the opportunity for students to immediately apply feedback, to make quick and targeted notes, and to perform real-time writing collaboration. Since they are drafting their papers in Google Drive, they can also track each and every change, changes are automatically saved, and communication between peers is constant. Also, peer response is more dynamic because students can embed hyperlinks to sources—like videos, articles, and Web sites—into their comments, tapping into their already heightened digital instincts. Adding these links allows extroverted students to make their points faster, using more direct, authentic language with their peers, while permitting introverted students to type their comments without the added pressure to speak.

Facilitating Discussions beyond the Classroom and Making Students Accountable

Because students build their own groups and peer-response rules and because they are always connected through Google Drive, their peer-to-peer discussions continue after class. These discussions give introverted students the opportunity to flourish beyond the classroom. Traditional peer response tries to force introverts to be extroverts, but introverts usually get lower grades for participation. Google Docs facilitates the type of modern communication methods that students are used to from group chats and social media discourse. In addition, when students form their own learning communities, instructors can move the peer-response process outside the classroom, freeing up class time for other work, such as lessons, readings, and activities to encourage critical thinking.

The more control, authenticity, and adaptability allowed in the writing process, the more accountability and ownership students claim. As bell hooks writes, “This is one of the joys of education as the practice of freedom, for it allows students to assume responsibility for their choices. . . .  Engaged pedagogy necessarily values student expression” (19–20). When students understand they’re not being watched, they develop personal processes, taking full responsibility for the success of not just their own projects but also their peers’ projects.

Modernizing the Process

It’s inevitable: academic discourse is changing, becoming more hybrid and welcoming multimodal and multimedia texts. Introducing Google Docs into your peer-response process allows students to develop multimodal and multimedia skills. Using digital platforms doesn’t devalue intellectual discourse; multimodality welcomes many more voices into the discussion than does traditional discourse. As Pierre Bourdieu notes, “The educational system, whose scale of operations grew in extent and intensity throughout the nineteenth century, no doubt directly helped devalue popular modes of expression, dismissing them as ‘slang’ and ‘gibberish’” (49). Our educational system is built on this outdated, nineteenth-century model. As technology weaves into our culture, it’s our social, professional, and educational responsibility to meet our students halfway by integrating tools, interfaces, and formats students are already using, providing an educational experience relevant to their social, cultural, and professional experiences. We’re not just talking about shaking things up in terms of peer response; Google Docs mirrors the writing students are already doing and will continue to do after they graduate: it’s a more interactive and inclusive experience.  

Google Docs may be far from perfect, but it is a tool adaptable to any class. While there will always be resistant students, no matter how you present the idea of peer response to them, Google Docs is extremely adaptable, inviting all students to make peer response work to their advantage. By stepping away, you will promote enough personal accountability to get these students to eventually come around. They claim ownership over their work, develop an intellectual identity, and emerge from years of traditional peer-response limitations. When one strategy fails, Google Docs gives you the flexibility to try another, even on the fly, in ways that traditional methods don’t allow.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Harvard UP, 2003.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Continuum International, 2003.

Gilyard, Keith. Composition and Cornel West: Notes toward a Deep Democracy. Southern Illinois UP, 2008.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.  Routledge, 1994.

Published 25 June 2019

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