Google tools for group work: Business Planning in The York Management School


Dr Alex Gillett in The York Management School (TYMS) has been teaching on the core, year two Business Planning module for a number of years and wanted to introduce students to the collaborative digital tools available at York to enhance the group work element of the module. Students work in teams to develop a business plan and Alex and staff from the E-Learning Development Team introduced students to the Google Apps for Education suite and VLE collaborative tools during the introductory lectures for the module. Students then complete a business proposal within the first three weeks of the module, which is submitted via the VLE’s assignment tool and marked using inline grading so there is a quick turnaround time for students receiving feedback. Marking online also means that students in the group can view their feedback online at any time and marking staff who were based in different parts of the country could see the feedback provided by each other. A rubric was also developed to provide consistency in the feedback. The module has taken on a similar format over the last three years and Alex has sought advice and guidance from staff in the E-Learning Development Team throughout that time.

Keywords: collaboration, communication, group work, formative assessment, inline grading, feedback, digital capability

Aims and Objectives

The Business Planning module is a large module taken by the entire cohort of undergraduate year 2 students from the different degree programmes offered by TYMS. It covers a broad and multidisciplinary subject matter and, for many of the students, this is the first opportunity they’ve had to apply their business skills outside of exams or essay writing. The size of the module results in challenges around time, cost and quality – with a limited number of staff hours and a large, diverse cohort to support. The aim was to get students working in teams comprised of UK, EU and international students and give them the experience of working on a project not dissimilar to situations they may encounter in future employment.

The diverse nature of the cohort, along with the fact that the group work took place over both the Spring and Summer terms, meant that there were periods of time where students might have to work remotely from different places. Alex wanted to highlight that students all had access to a variety of Google apps and VLE tools that would allow them to contribute to group work and collaborate outside of face-to-face meetings. While use of more ‘informal’ communication tools such as Facebook and Whatsapp was not prohibited, the aim of this module was to encourage professional methods of working that might be expected of graduates once they enter the workplace and are presented with different tools and technologies to work with project teams across the globe. See the Information Services Presentation on the way Google Apps was used in the first week of the module.

The teaching team on the module place a lot of emphasis on the formative work and the seminars, where students get a chance to get advice on their business proposals from tutors. After the formative business proposals were submitted, Alex wanted a quick turnaround between submission and feedback being received. The teaching team were also geographically dispersed around the country and meeting face to face during marking periods was not always possible. The VLE’s assignment submission tool and inline marking tools in the Grade Centre enabled staff to mark work within the VLE as soon as it was submitted and staff were also able to easily access the feedback that had been provided by their colleagues. The use of a rubric also meant that students were able to get an idea of the standard they were working to (no formal mark was given for this assessment) and also receive more in-depth comments and annotations on the document itself.


The module consisted of nine weeks of lectures in the Spring term, alongside fortnightly seminars where students attended with their own team and one or two additional other teams. Students used the seminar time to work on their business plans and get advice and guidance from the module tutors. The formative assessment – the business proposal – was due within three weeks of the module starting, so students were encouraged to meet regularly with their teams outside of scheduled class time. The teaching team turned around the marking and feedback within one week. Once the formative feedback was received, students then had to continue working in their teams to complete their business plan, prepare a group presentation, and complete an individual assignment. These three pieces of work were the summative assessment for the module and were submitted in the Summer term.

Alex met with members of the E-Learning Team each year before the module started, to get advice on the best tools to recommend to students that would help to facilitate their group work. In 2014/15 Alex worked with Simon Davis to develop a rubric using the VLE’s rubric tool and this was used to mark student work, along with annotated comments using the crocodoc inline grading feature. Simon Davis presented at the ALT Conference in 2014 on the work he had done with Alex. The same rubric and workflow for marking the formative work was adopted for the 2015/16 academic year.

A member of the team also attended the first couple of lectures to provide demonstrations of how to work collaboratively with tools such as Google docs and how to share files through Google Drive. E-Learning Development Team members also highlighted the group work areas on the VLE (each team was put into a VLE group) and explained how tools such as discussion boards and the file exchange tool could be used, if some teams did not want to or couldn’t use Google tools because of geographical restrictions. Students were also shown how to upload their business proposals to the assignment submission point and it was explained how they would access their feedback within the VLE once the work had been marked.

Alex and the E-Learning Development Team worked collaboratively to provide help guides and resources within the VLE on the use of the tools that had been recommended. Some basic tasks involving setting up a Google Group and sharing documents were also outlined in the VLE and, while not compulsory, students were encouraged to complete the tasks as part of their first team meeting so they could get used to how some of the tools worked.


In a survey conducted after the 2014-15 iteration of the module, 61% of the students said that they preferred receiving their formative feedback online and really welcomed the use of the inline comments to provide specific and detailed feedback.

Survey responses to preferred method of feedback

As part of a mid-point survey of the 2014-15 module, 98% of respondents stated that their teams had agreed on a strategy for managing collaborative work through the use of technology with email, Google Groups, Google Docs and Facebook being the tools with the highest usage. There were some problems identified, such as the learning curve required to use some of the Google tools and the fact that technology was sometimes used inconsistently within a group.

Will your use of technology in this module affect your approach to collaborative work in the future?

The above question was asked at both the mid and end point of the module in 2014-15 and in both cases over 85% of respondents said that they would change their approaches based on the tools they’d used and skills they’d gained on the Business Planning module.

From a staff perspective, Alex and the teaching team really benefited from marking within the VLE so that they could see each other’s comments and provide a quick turnaround between submission and feedback so that students could act on their feedback and continue with their projects. Alex also sees the value in encouraging students to make the most of the digital tools that are available to them while studying at York, as many workplaces and businesses will expect graduates to have the capability and skills to manage their work in a digital age.

Transferable lessons learned

The way the Business Planning module has been designed has particular relevance to the work of the York Pedagogy, especially the core theme of designing student work. This module spans the entire second year cohort, so will encompass a lot of the programme learning outcomes for a number of different degree programmes offered by TYMS.

The skills and experience that students gain on this module enable them to put the theory they have learnt in the first year into practice and students also benefit from working in teams to develop a lot of the ‘soft’ skills that are essential for the modern workplace: collaboration, effective communication and digital capability (to name a few). They also get the experience of working with students from different countries and different programmes.

Any degree programmes that are looking to build group work and online marking into modules would benefit from adopting some of the approaches Alex has used. Staff can also draw on the expertise of the E-Learning Development Team to find out how the digital tools available at York can be used to enhance and encourage student collaboration.

Next steps

We can provide advice on the use of Google Apps for Education and the tools and features that are integrated into the VLE, such as group areas with discussion forums, file sharing and wiki tools. We can also meet with programme teams and individuals to discuss your requirements. Please contact to set up a meeting.