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Review of Google Docs

by Kristen Abbey

1. Writely, the web-based text editor I have undertaken to review for its academic utility, has already disappeared. In the space of a few months, Writely has been purchased by Google and has become the word processing element of part of Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Now expanding its online services, Google hopes to capture users with free, functional software (making its money through advertising rather). Google has even more recently integrated Writely/Google Docs into Google Apps, which is Google’s organized attempt to generate lifelong Google users by selling online services to schools. As a result, online applications such as Writely are growing and changing so rapidly that the weeks it takes to compose a review of such applications are enough time for the ground to shift.

2. Leading a classroom of students onto this sand entails, then, an intrinsic risk. Nevertheless, there are pedagogical advantages to be had for web-editing documents, especially in the composition classroom. Writely/Google Docs is a good place to explore these potential advantages for secondary and higher education.

3. The Writely/Google Docs approach to editing documents and serving them online represents a revolutionary approach to public and private control of data. In some ways, then, Google Docs is not unlike a public laundromat: since it is web-based users do not have to purchase or manage their own machines. Another advantage of this service is that storing documents on a mainframe prevents most accidental losses of data. Moreover, no student will ever be without a copy of her document in class again; access to the internet is access to the software and the document both. Moving from a web-based editor to a published, public document is as easy as a single click. And online production facilitates collaborative writing and group research projects, two staples of writing pedagogy and professional training.

4. Google Docs and Spreadsheets are free, web-based software for word processing and information management. You need nothing more than a Google account, which is also free, and a connection to the internet. Google Docs and Spreadsheets are then available in the account managemen and products areas of Google's website. And since Google Docs runs inside your internet browser (e.g., Firefox or Explorer), there is nothing to download or install. Also, Google Docs allows you to upload and create documents that are automatically saved on Google's server.

5. Basic formatting and layout functions are also available. Writers can invite collaborators to edit or view documents, and documents can be edited by more than one collaborator simultaneously. Because Google automatically tracks revisions and stores version information by time, it is possible to compare or restore any version from any point in the editing process. And because the documents are already online, publishing them is a simple matter of assigning each an address. Google can either host the document as a public webpage or post text directly to an existing blog. Another useful feature is that Google exports documents for download onto a local hard-drive in various formats: HTML (web page format), PDF (printer format), Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, and OpenOffice (a Linux-based word-processing format). And the Spreadsheets application imports and exports to .xls, .csv, and .ods, and additionally exports to pdf and html.

6. Of course, use of Google Docs in the classroom demands a computer room with reliable high speed internet access, since poor connectivity can result in loss of data. Slow internet access can also prevent Google's autosave feature from saving revisions to a document. Nevertheless, a slower machine with little or no hard-drive space can access Google Docs on the internet just as effectively as a high-end machine with expensive word processing software. This means the "One Laptop Per Child" initiative's cut-down laptops [hyperlink], or any other inexpensive machine, will have access to the most stable, easy-to-use document editor and document storage – more stable even than an expensive personal computer.

7. And yet, Google Docs & Spreadsheets is exclusively online, so it cannot be used without internet access, which is another personal expenditure for some students. However, economic hardship more often prevents students with personal computers from owning, for example, the Microsoft Office suite – the common alternative to this web-based resource. The move to wireless, then, makes internet connectivity increasingly easier to obtain; thus internet access may become less an impediment in the future. Writers can access their work from any computer around the world, or around the campus.

8. In appearance, Google Docs is simple and clear. The page is by default white and features a blue task-bar. The basic functions are represented by buttons familiar from every available text editing program: cut, paste, bold, italic, indent, link, align, etc. Additional functions are conveniently available in tabs and pull-down menus. However, some users might find unintuitive the ways in which these tabs and pull-down menus divide up complex functions, like saving and exporting. But fortunately, the number of functions is small enough that confusion is minimal.

9. The beginning composition student who writes by hand and has little experience with computers needs not wade through the vast number of MS Word’s features. Google docs is simpler, and the students' interaction with it structured and purposeful. The simplicity of Google Docs restricts the user to a few standard web-available fonts, which is a blessing in student work, and only a problem for desktop publishing. There is an effective spell check, which is activated as a separate step from writing. The editor requires the student writer to review spelling errors and proper names individually and in context with a drop-down list of suggested possibilities; the student sees and reviews her work and so can learn from mistakes in a way impossible when spelling is changed automatically. There is no grammar checker, which is a good thing for students, who often add more errors than they remove with such tools. The only absent features student writers might miss are automatic page numbering, footnotes, and hanging indents; page formatting is handled by the web browser.

10. The collaborative tools Google Docs offers are spectacularly useful for classroom work. Instructors can view student writers' work online when the students invite them to collaborate on a document. The revision view will make the writer's process as much a subject of review for the writing instructor as the final product. The comment feature is easy to use and intuitive; instructor and peer comments can appear alongside the paragraphs to which they refer, as on paper. Word count is available.

11. And for group writing projects, Google Docs is ideal. Other writers and readers can be invited to revise or review documents. Each person may simultaneously edit the same document in real time, making possible group writing assignments in a computer classroom. Each writer's contribution is visible in a different color in a revision view; thus, each student’s contribution to a group project will be immediately obvious to the instructor. The ownership of the document still resides with an individual, the user in whose account the document is associated, but the act of writing becomes genuinely public. As collaboration is more and more the business model of productivity, web editing may become an increasingly useful skill. Such web editing may also transform writing from a private to a public act.

12. This is because Google Docs allows instant publishing. Writers can export directly to a blog or wiki after spellchecking and formatting their texts. Alternatively, Google will host the page as HTML and assign it a random, anonymous url. Users can thus share their documents with those internet users who do not have Google accounts. And by asking students to write for public consumption, we not only put greater weight on their work; we also demonstrate more effectively the hazards of accepting uncritically information they find online. Anyone can participate in the public discussion of the internet, and every college graduate needs to be prepared to evaluate self-published material. Producing such material accomplishes part of this goal; the students can see lies and rhetorical misrepresentations of their own creation enter into the digital conversation with the appearance of truth.

13. At this time, Google Docs is not considered a competitor with course management software such as Moodle, Blackboard, and eCollege, since it does not have features exclusive to teachers. There is not yet a way to create a template document, such as a quiz or writing exercise, that each student can review and work on separately. Students could be invited to view a document, but they would have to copy and save it to their own account as a document they intended to use and revise.

14. Internet buzz does suggest, however, that Google's move puts it in competition with software giant Microsoft for office software. Yet, Google Docs' more immediate competition is Zoho, a service that also provides free online office software but requires a subscription to enable groups to collaborate. Zoho's product does have templates; but it also features a weak autosave function (at least in the version I used). Zoho’s interface features more gimmicks, too, which often clutter student work (e.g., emoticons); and like MS Word it also includes an array of buttons and features that often intimidate new computer users. Zoho is clearly challenging Microsoft's monopoly on software for business, where Google serves as an alternative for the more general user.

15. Online editors in general, and Google Docs in particular, may well represent a bright future for public discourse. These technologies tap the potential for a radically different approach to writing in and out of the classroom. However, while this is a pedagogical direction in which we may want to travel, as of now the support for using Google Docs in the classroom is admittedly limited, available to those teachers willing to experiment with this fast-developing online resource.

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