Canvas Tips & Tricks: Integrating Google Docs

As a writing instructor, Google Docs has been one of my favorite tools for student writing and collaboration. Even in non-writing intensive courses, Google Docs is a great way to be able to view student work, revisions, and collaboration. Students can conduct peer review on Google Docs (and we are able to see their comments and work), they can turn in assignments, they can do group brainstorming, and they can even do group annotation on uploaded documents. The possibilities seem endless for creative ways to use that platform.

Our University’s migration to Canvas has been a learning experience for so many of us (or maybe a “putting off experience” for some of us), but whether you have already migrated to Canvas or are waiting for that looming deadline until you no longer have access to Blackboard, there is a transitionary period to any new Learning Management System. There are many aspects of Canvas that I absolutely adore – assignment turn in is so easy! The SpeedGrader! The streamlined look! Easy interface! Course copy! — but, I found myself missing the “Journal” function in Blackboard.

In my First-Year Composition courses, I have my students keep “Contribution Journals.” These journals are a weekly assignment, only viewable to me, where students write about their contributions to the course over that week. They address their abilities to meet deadlines, complete work, their growth in working with their peers, their work in class, and their contact with me. In short, students are being asked to assess how hard, how much, and to what extent they are contributing to the course. I got this idea from my wonderful colleague, Dr. Clifton Justice, and it has been a success for my students because at the end of the semester, I ask them to write a Contribution Grade Defense where they assess how they have contributed to the course as a whole. So, when we moved to Canvas, I needed to find a way to host these journals.


Screenshot of the Contribution Journal template in CI Docs
Screenshot of the Contribution Journal template in CI Docs


I wanted a continual assignment that students could add to and view their previous weeks’ journals. I wanted students to be able to reference prior weeks in their current journal as well as pull examples from the whole thing when they wrote their Contribution Defense at the end of the semester. For these reasons, I didn’t feel like a continually resubmitted textbox entry “Assignment” was going to cut it; I didn’t want the students to have to resubmit and attach a new document every single week, and my own Google search prompted ideas of complicated excel spreadsheets and other strange pathways to get to the sort of “journal” I was looking for. So, the emails to our T&LI team began, and Jill Leafstedt and Michael McGarry figured out a Google Docs plug-in for Canvas.

The pros: I set up the Google Doc plug-in as an Assignment under the “Assignments” tab. I made the Google Doc template for the journal and the assignment automatically creates a separate copy for each student when they click on it (just like a journal!). Once students authorize the plug-in and begin typing, all of their information is there! All they have to do is hit the submit button each week and I can view the updated Contribution Journal in my SpeedGrader. The assignment is only viewable to me, the students can access their “journal” from anywhere, and they only need to click on one thing.

The cons: As with any plug-in, the authorization became an issue for some students. Thankfully, for most of them, once we cleared their browser history, the authorization worked. Another student told me, just yesterday, that as long as he signs out off all of his other accounts, the authorization works no problem. Other students, however, are still struggling with adding the plug-in, but we do get those user errors with most everything we use online.


Screenshot of 'Authorize' page for logging in to use Google Drive in Canvas
Screenshot of ‘Authorize’ page for logging in to use Google Drive in Canvas


Overall: The Google Docs plug-in has been a great tool for setting up a “journal” tool in Canvas that is reminiscent of the journals in Blackboard. The plug-in, once the authorization kinks get worked out, could also be used for other assignments that you may want to set up a template for first and have each student have their own copy.


Screenshot of Contribution template in the Canvas Assignment window.
Screenshot of Contribution template in the Canvas Assignment window.


As we move forward with Canvas, I’m excited for all of the possibilities within our new Learning Management System. With this particular tool, I’m learning all over again, how taking risks is worth it, that figuring out glitches with our students is also a great critical thinking tool, and modeling technology problem-solving for our students is a great exercise in and of itself. As always, I was also reminded of our incredible T&LI team who work tirelessly to fit our faculty’s educational needs.

I hope that this post helps give you the confidence to play within Canvas, try something new, or adapt any of your colleagues’ ideas into your own classes. Taking those technological risks always pays off in the end.

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