Digital note-passing alert: how students are using Google Docs to 'collaborate' on in-class chat

Psssst - catch!

That was the old-school way of passing notes in class. Today’s students have far subtler means at their disposal: from iMessage to SnapChat to Skype to name-your-social-media-platform chat function. But the latest and best in-class hack, students say, is none other than good ol’ Google Docs.

And you don’t even have to fold them up.

With paperless classrooms swiftly becoming the norm, teaching and learning increasingly rely on Google Docs to serve a variety of functions: collaboration, lesson planning, composing and revising drafts, taking notes - and, more and more, passing them behind teachers’ backs.

Phones can be banned, and social media firewalled, but blocking Google Docs would be a self-defeating exercise in most schools. And that makes the platform the chatting gold standard as far as students are concerned.

And there are so many ways it can happen. Sometimes it’s via the service’s live-chat function. (Didn’t know Google Docs even had a live-chat function? You’re in good company - many if not most adult users are unaware it even exists. You’ll find the functionality hiding in a little black thought-bubble icon in the upper righthand corner of the screen. It only appears when you and another user are logged onto the same document. It's also turned off by default for users under age 13.)

If your school uses G-Suite, you can turn off the live-chat feature as an administrator.  But the truth is, that would be a case of putting your digital finger in the virtual dyke. Because Google Docs is all about talking to others users - generally via comments in the pop-up box that appears when a word or phrase has been highlighted.

To prevent teachers ‘eavesdropping’ on such comments, kids simply clone the document and invite a limited set of shares from which the teacher is naturally excluded. In this way, they can look as if they’re hard at work on a document. If a teacher comes in for a closer look, the ‘Resolve’ button will delete the entire thread in a single click.

Even simpler: kids will simply create a shared document and chat inside it, maybe adopting different fonts so users can keep track of contributors. Such conversations cannot be confiscated like an old-school note, needless say - and leave no trace once deleted.


Parents are even easier to con, students admit. 

Even the most eagle-eyed teachers can be deceived by these ploys. Parents are even easier to con. When mum or dad takes a casual glance at the screen, they see a text-heavy document and a child industriously tapping away at it. A school project, they assume. And it is. Sort of. Only not the kind they’re imagining. And it’s another sneaky and effective way young people are getting around social media bans during study time.

It’s been observed that keeping students away from online distractions is a bit like a game of whack-a-mole. Disable one distraction, and you can guarantee another will appear in its place.

It has also been observed that eternal vigilance is the price of democracy. At Family Zone Education, we believe it’s also the price we pay as educators for the benefits of the digital world.

Our world-leading solutions, integrating best-in-class technology with first-rate educational expertise, are helping schools all over the world to maintain that vigilance - to minimise distractions and maximise learning outcomes.

Students may stay one step ahead of their teachers and parents. But Family Zone stays one step ahead of students. Stay informed, and be proactive.

Topics: Cyber Safety, Cyber Experts, classroom management, distraction

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