In my book How To Teach Online Without Selling Your Soul I describe a way of teaching online which I called “The Minimalist Approach”.

It’s based on the idea to keep educational technology as simple as possible, enabling easy access for everyone. It should connect people and stay out of focus. Period.

That could mean using Skype or Skype-like technology for establishing an audio/video connection.

But this is only the beginning.

As Sylvia pointed out in her article Why Skype is The Simplest Way To Get Started Teaching” Online you can also easily use whatever third-party tools, materials and websites, contrary to most virtual classrooms that are either a bit complicated or unstable (99% are flash-based) or have limited features.

If you’re already teaching with this “virtual blank canvas” approach as Sylvia put it, one tool that I’d absolutely recommend trying out is Google Documents.

Here’s Why:

1. Interactivity

Google Documents does a lot of things. But mainly it does one thing: allow two or more people to work on a document, presentation, spreadsheet etc. at the same time.

This is perfect for online teaching!

Instead of presenting learners with fixed explanations, you can let them create a mind-map during the lesson. You can let your student fill in worksheets in real-time and give supportive feedback on the side as they are writing, letter by letter.

Conventional exercises such as match the phrases or match pictures with phrases can be used creatively, drawing connecting lines or crossing out things directly onscreen.

Not only does it allow teachers to introduce visual markers such as shapes and colours, it also provides students with the option to jump in and edit, manipulate, change and move around all of the elements – turning the fixed textbook or worksheet into a creative experience.

Especially kids love this. Not only can they express their creativity, they can also learn the basics of using drawing programs, text processors, etc.

Recently, a seven year old girl suggested to me that we should rather cross out the phrases we’d already done in an exercise instead of drawing arrows between them that were crossing a little clip-art image of a dog which she found particularly cute. So we talked about how to select and delete the arrows and how to use the line-drawing tool for crossing-out purposes and I agreed in the end that her way of doing this was the best!

2. Collaboration

In a face-to-face environment when teachers use the medium of blackboard, projector or worksheet there’s a perspective gap. The teacher sees the blackboard from a different angle than the studens, to some the projected image is blurred, to others clear, there’s a lot of craning, stretching and squinting going on.

If you use a tool like Google Documents each of the participants sees the exact same thing.

Sometimes when teachers give an assignment in face-to-face situations they look over the shoulders of the learners, trying to give feedback or offer support but more often than not it’s a bit awkward. Some students feel, rightly so, that this invades their personal space, they feel observed, although the teacher only wants to help.

Google Documents allows the teachers to look right through the learner’s eyes, as it were, improving the ability to give feedback while reducing the feeling of “being observed”

3. Simplicity

Okay, so this is all great but some people will ask what makes using Google Documents so different from using a Virtual Classroom with integrated whiteboard. Good question. The answer: simplicity!

  • no need to sign up for anything. You can send learners a link and start writing and drawing immediately
  • documents save themselves automatically every few seconds so that if there’s a crash, nothing is lost
  • existing documents can easily be shared or re-used in other lessons
  • even after the lesson is over the student has full access to view, edit and print the document
  • it’s not flash-based, so it’s widely compatible and comparatively stable

Also, Google Documents is free. Most VCs are not. And where whiteboards focus on the drawing aspect, Google Documents is like a fully functioning Office suite, only online, free and collaboration-based.

And they recently re-designed its interface to make it even easier to use.

Getting Started in Less Than 10 Seconds

If you’ve never used it before, here’s a quick-rundown: Go to docs.google.com (you do need a google account for creating documents)  and

1. Click create

2. Select a Type

3. Click on the locker symbol

4. Click Change

5. Select a sharing-mode (e.g. “public + allow anyone to edit”)

Then you can simply hit save and share the link.

Are you using Google Documents in your online sessions?

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