Illinois Wesleyan has never done much in the way of collaborating with documents. We’ve shared a few spreadsheets as multi-user, but other than that we only get calls to turn off that pesky “Track Changes” feature in Word. Not many people have made an effort to use collaborative tools on the web either. A few courses incorporated wiki usage last term but I don’t think anyone has proposed to continue this year. There is a lot of untapped potential here – document collaboration via e-mail is not very efficient.
If IWU goes the Google Apps route for e-mail, we’ll have another tool available – Google Docs. Last week we took a look at this suite-within-a-suite.
Google Docs has a file-manager frontend that looks good but was a bit buggy. One document would not open from this Docs start page, and had to be opened from the Personal Start Page or from a direct share link instead.
It was very easy to create documents and have lots of people working simultaneously. Google did a great job of auto-saving most changes. One tricky part was that you could easily wind up with multiple windows and tabs with old versions of the doc being displayed. It took a vigilant eye to keep up with the current active window or tab. The Apps did a mroe than satisfactory job of keeping track of many revisions by many people. If two people edited the same cell of a spreadsheet within a few seconds, the second user to save would be notified as such, and given the opportunity to review the changes.
There are lots of features that MS Office has that are not touched here. Don’t try to use this suite for a mail merge – there is no feature that comes close. Don’t expect all the Word formatting options either. You might try importing a Word document into Docs to take advantage of both worlds. Two problems stand in your way. Google Docs doesn’t yet support Office 2007 file importing, and Google Apps for Edu imposes a file size limitation of 500k. Apparently there is not such a low ceiling for the public version of Google Docs. Perhaps this is something we could administer once the institution is on board.
Google Spreadsheets have lots of functions, but the interface for selecting them is not as nice as Excel. You get to see the function name but not a description of what it does. For that you must open a help window. On the other hand, there are some features that are quite novel. For example, you can create a spreadsheet and then share it to other users not as a spreadsheet but as a fillable form. The data is collected into the correct columns in the corresponding sheet. What a great solution to the sticky problem of duplicate data entry (currently we set up fillable PDF forms which are collected and re-entered manually)!
I had a bit of trouble with data entry in Google Sheets. In Excel, you can tab between columns to enter data across a row. When you reach the end of your row, if you hit enter you are taken back to the start of the next row. In Google Sheets, you are dropped into the last cell of the next row (immediately below the one you just filled). This leads me to believe that it would be easiest to compose sheets in Excel, then import them for collaboration.
Google Docs is pretty good at printing documents and sheets if you keep one rule in mind: use “Gprint, not browser print”. In other words, if you try using the print function of your browser it will come out wrong. Use the print function within the Google Docs application instead. There are a number of export options, too, including PDF.
My favorite function was actually in Google Presentations. There is an “Insert Movie” feature that allows you to embed a YouTube movie player right into your slide. This could help many faculty who are increasingly using YouTube clips in their lectures. They could have the clips correctly placed in context rather than having to switch around between apps. I am also considering using Presentations instead of Powerpoint – I wouldn’t need to worry about Powerpoint being installed, or about packing up all the neccessary files on a disc or flash drive. To me, Presentations looks like an upgrade in convenience.
I think it is safe to say that these tools are good in general, but very good for collaboration. Again, we had some concerns about the “beta” feel of this product. In addition to some fit-and-finish concerns, there needs to be more consistency across the Docs suite user interface. For example, everywhere we looked in Google Apps we found the “save” button in a different location. This is certainly a usability problem.
I personally plan on using the Presentation software next week for some training sessions. I hope others on campus give this a try. Just a reminder, you can join in our Google Apps @ iwu.edu group by signing up here: