Dr Christopher Jobling

Senior Lecturer



Today I was looking for an alternative to Blackboard’s survey manager when I stumbled upon this great suggestion from Technology Bites. All you do is go to Google Docs (docs.google.com) and create a new Google Docs Spreadsheet (you’ll need a free google account, but if you’re a Gmail user or a Blogger blogger you’ll have these already). One of the sharing options that Google provides is web form for data input and this is quick and easy to use. The rest of this article takes you through the process with a screencast supported demo.


Let’s say I want to make a spreadsheet for gathering student module assessments for one of my courses. In the School of Engineering, we use paper for this, but here’s how I could do it with Google Docs. To make it easier to follow, I am illustrating each step with mini screencasts captured with Jing. [When I created these at the Uni, either the network or screencasts.com was running really, really slowly, so have patience!]

  1. First I create a new spreadsheet in Google Docs and add a couple of column headings. I want a module code and lecturer name. You don’t need to specify all columns at this point because there’s a neat form editor that you can use later to fill in the rest of the details. You can view the mini screencast that illustrates this step.
  2. The next step is to share the spreadsheet as a form. First I save my spreadsheet, then I select the share tab, and choose the option to allow collaborators the fill out a form. This creates a new web page with a simple web form editor. The form will have a title and and a text area for the introductory text/instructions. Any columns that I’ve already given a title to will be given a form field with a default “widget”. You can edit the form in place and change the entry type from text to paragraph text, multiple choice, check boxes, and choose from list. You can also create new fields (spreadsheet columns) from within the form ort duplicate an existing entry for ease of construction. In the next mini screencast I show some of these options.
  3. When you save your form, any new fields that you create will be put into the spreadsheet. At this point you can test your form by clicking on go to live form. You’ll be presented with a form that will appear just as your users will see it . Any data you enter will be stored as a new row in the spreadsheet along with a time-stamp. See the third mini screencast.
  4. When you are ready to make the survey live you can send out email requests for form completion. It’s probably a good idea to send a copy to yourself for testing first (screencast 4).
  5. The recommended way to send the form out to your students would be with an email invitation from Google. However, this is likely to be impractical for all but the smallest classes. Instead, I recommend that you use either an external link, or the Blackboard email facility. All that you need is the test email that you sent yourself in the previous step. This email contains the form and also a link. You can
    • send the link (here it is) to anyone,
    • publish it to your students with an external link (see screencast 5),
    • or use the code that Google provides to create an embedded version of the form for your Blackboard site or blog.

    There is also a google gadget that you can use to keep an eye on the form while it is active.


Once the data is in the spreadsheet, you can edit the column fields that the form editor created, and do various other things such as deleting a form field (only the column title goes, any associated data remains). However, deleting a spreadsheet column does not remove the corresponding form field.

When you have made your form available for long enough to collect some data, you can turn off the data capture from the spreadsheet page. As there is no real access control on form submission, you will need to be careful to check the data and eliminate any obvious spam and duplicate submissions.

There are virtually no validation features: for example, a second submission by the same user creates a new row in the spreadsheet. Maybe Google will add these in later revisions. If you want these features, alternatives (free with limitations) exist: e.g. SurveyMonkey.com seems to have a good range of features.

Because it is module specific, anonymous, and doesn’t record an individual’s response, a Blackboard survey may be more appropriate than Google Web Forms for many tasks, including the one described here. If you want to create a more complex survey, then one of the alternatives like SurveyMonkey.com may be more appropriate. However, if you want the response data in a spreadsheet format for quick analysis, don’t mind leaving the Blackboard “walled garden” and are prepared to do a bit of your own quality control, then Google Docs is a very quick and simple way to create a survey and gather your data in just the format you need it.

If you know spreadsheets, it’s childishly simple to use, and it’s worth considering for that reason alone!

May 21st, 2008

Posted In: e-learning, tips

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