How shared docs enable flexibility and accessibility for teachers and learners

The last year of online live teaching has generated myriad ideas for how to use new and existing technologies for educational purposes. Aside from assigning podcasts, one of my favourite methods of creating accessible learning resources for live sessions is using shared documents (ie OneDrive Word files or Google Docs), instead of slides and screensharing during live sessions.  

My use of these documents was developed over teaching a number of first-year undergraduate seminars in the social sciences, and my use of the documents was iterative, with direct changes in response to student feedback (Hamilton, 2020; Healey & Healy, 2019; Friere, 1998). Module after module, even when asked about the course overall (and not my seminars specifically), students praised the use of shareable documents for creating a consistent structure (Eddy & Hogan, 2017). When surveyed, 85% of students requested that the use of shared docs be continued as a key part of their success in the seminars.  

The below tips apply to all kinds of shared documents. I personally tend towards using the most straightforward and simplest forms: ie Word docs or Google docs. However, the below benefits also apply to creating a slideshow and sharing the link to it, for participants to follow on their own devices rather than via you sharing your screen.  

How shared documents make preparation easier:  

  • Shared documents (especially Word or Google docs) can accommodate text, images & links, enabling the same quality and quantity of content often conveyed via slides. 
  • Shareable documents can be shared via link, rather than screen-sharing, which means that you do not have to: 
  • Upload slides to a meetings platform (i.e. MS Teams) ahead of a session 
  • Worry about whether the screen is showing up for participants accurately or effectively (font size, etc) 
  • Choose to either share your screen or see the chat/reactions (thus eliminating many of the reasons to require a co-host or co-pilot)  

How shared docs make live sessions more inclusive: 

There are also some significant benefits for participants, because sharing via link also enables participants to move back and forward through the document at their own pace. This has a number of benefits for student engagement generally (Greenhow & Galvin, 2020), but also:  

  • Reduces repetitive questions – participants can scroll back to previously stated information as they need, without having to feel stupid or annoying by asking for clarification (Regmi & Jones, 2020; Leatherwood, 2006). This is especially powerful for regular reminders, for example meeting etiquette, deadlines, how assignments work, etc (McGarry, 2020). 
  • Increases capacity to take notes – when participants know that the key information is already available to them via a link they can already access (rather than waiting for access post-session), this allows them to focus on taking higher quality notes and reflections rather than frantically copying everything down (Jisc, 2014). 
  • Increases accessibility options – if participants use screen readers, have accessibility plug-ins in their browsers, or prefer to download docs in order to change size/font/colour, they can do all of these things easily without having to ask for special accommodations or access. 

How I teach with shared docs: 

I generally structure my session documents in the following way: 

  • Participation etiquette & expectations (i.e. use of cameras, chat participation, etc) 
  • Introductory icebreaker question, for all participants to answer briefly in the chat to promote engagement (i.e. “What is your favourite sport and why?” “If one animal could rule the world, which would you choose and why?) 
  • Reminders about assignments, deadlines, etc. I generally keep this information the same for successive sessions (i.e. weekly seminars), enabling participants to feel confident about where the information is located.  
  • Any participant presentations and discussion questions submitted before live sessions (often via Moodle forums) 
  • Closing icebreaker question, for all participants to answer briefly in the chat 

This benefits participants because: 

  • Enables advance notice of participation requirements – by giving participants a structured guide to how the session will run that they can see from the beginning, participants can scroll through at the beginning of sessions to determine when and in what ways they are likely to be expected to participate, which can help with preparing and planning to participate (Jisc, 2014). 
  • Reduces complexity – It also ensures that all the material that participants will need to engage with is in one place the whole time (ie discussion questions), reducing complexity of navigating between various sources of information (Blau et al, 2020).  
  • Creates a revision resource – It provides a starting point for note-taking and acts as an already existing record of the session for later memory, revision, etc.  
  • All of these aspects together combine to reduce anxiety and therefore enable more effective learning and engagement (Jisc, 2014; Jisc, 2020; Friere, 1998).  

How to make shared documents accessible: 

There are myriad ways to make documents of all kinds accessible, and technological options are continually evolving. It can also be difficult to know every possible need to accommodate for. Further written guidance is available, and LEaD runs regular workshops on Digital Accessibility and inclusive teaching practices  

Some of my personal tips: 

  • Consider the purpose of including images, and reduce use of decorative images. Ask yourself: Why do you need this image (Tomprou et al, 2021)? Can you convey that information in another or additional way? 
    • Ctrl+click, or right click on the image in order to input alt-text 
  • Under File > Page Setup, set the page colour as a medium-dark blue, and then change all text to white. This improves visual contrast for reading. 
  • Remind participants that they can download the doc at any time to make their own modifications without having to ask for permission or make any disclosures. 
  • Make sure all pages have page numbers for ease of reference of which page you’d like the group to be on. 
  • Page breaks between each section of information to ease visual clutter. 
  • Using bold or italics for emphasis, rather than CAPS LOCK or underline or colour. 

Downsides to be aware of: 

  • Participants will be able to see everything you’ve put into the doc, so the concept of having slides viewable to an audience while the “speaker notes” are visible only to you will not work in this set-up 
  • You will have to select the sharing permissions before sharing the link, as copy-pasting the URL will not automatically grant viewing access. 
  • OneDrive and Office365 documents cannot be set up for participants to interact with anonymously, so if you want participants to be able to access the document, for viewing or editing, anonymously, Google docs/slides is best option.  

 If you’re looking for 1:1 support with digital education or education technology, please feel free to sign-up for one of our Ed-Tech Drop-Ins, available online on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

About the author:

Dr Miranda Melcher is an assistant educational technologist in the Operations team of LEaD. One of her specialties is inclusive teaching practices, focusing on neurodiverse and disabled students. She can be reached at


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Eddy, S.L. and Hogan, K.A., 2014. Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13 (3), 453–468. 

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Tomprou, M., Kim, Y.J., Chikersal, P., Woolley, A.W., and Dabbish, L.A., 2021. Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. Plos One, 16 (3). 

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One thought on “How shared docs enable flexibility and accessibility for teachers and learners

  1. Thanks for this timely and informative article, it reminds me that sharing documents in advance is such a valuable inclusive practice.

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