Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Google Proves Massively Useful Once Again; Continues To Try To Dominate World (Google Docs)

One of my former students (Thanks, Meg!) sent me the big news: Google has added real-time, collaborative editing to Google Docs. This means that you and up to 9 collaborators can jump on a single Google Doc and simultaneously type and edit.

While this may not appear to support Google's attempt at world domination to quite the extent the headline to this post makes it seem (whew!), it does.

Previously, a wonderful little online product called Etherpad was the only such real-time collaborative tool available. Lots of people loved it but, when Google (the plot thickens...) bought it out a few months ago, the people who wept loudest were -- wait for it -- teachers.

I myself had used it in the classroom. It was easy and efficient and got students working together quickly without a whole lot of admin fuss and bother. The final collaborative product wasn't very pretty (no real formatting options) but, once the content was agreed upon by the students working on the project, it was easy to move that content into Word or PowerPoint or, for that matter, Google Docs, to pretty it up.

For those of you who did not have a chance to experience the magic of Etherpad, you can still see what all the fuss was about. Google (kindly) made the code for Etherpad open-source and several people developed almost identical clones of the product (my favorite is Typewith.me). I strongly encourage you to find a buddy or two and use this product. Everyone who has played with it, loves it.

Particularly teachers.

Where teachers go, students are sure to follow. Once you have had a taste of the speed, the increased level of intellectual engagement and, frankly, the fun of real-time collaboration, it will be very difficult to go back to the old emailing-the-doc-around-sort-of-thing. Google is more than happy to share its apps with schools and over 7 million students currently use them. Students (at least here at Mercyhurst) are already using Google products extensively and Google has just given the millennials one more reason to go Google and stay Google.

I have a couple of gripes, though. First it seems you have to have a Google account to set up a Google Doc. It is unclear whether or not you have to have a Google account to access the doc (We tried this in my Advanced Analytic Techniques class today and people with Mercyhurst addresses could not access the site while people with Gmail addresses could). This was not the case with Etherpad.

Likewise, you can only have 10 active collaborators at a time (though more can view the doc). While I recognize that teachers and classes aren't the only audience for this product, maybe in Mountain View they only have 10 students to a class but I would suggest that this is not the norm.

More importantly, some of the features demoed in the video below were not obviously available to us when we did get access. If the version we used this afternoon is supposed to look like the version in the video, it didn't -- and there was no obvious way to change it. We also experienced some lag in seeing each others' edits, something I had not experienced before with Etherpad.

Finally, the URL for sharing a doc looks like this: http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0AbJaj3wMNjkSZGhrcWs0ZGhfMjNodGRoam1jaA&hl=en

Not the easiest thing to share...

One thing you can count on with Google, though, is that it will continue to improve its flagship products. I may not like what they are currently offering ( I am sticking with Typewith.me for the time being) but I am virtually certain it will get better over time (and, in this case, fairly quickly, I expect).

Whether you like Google or you hate it, don't blink -- it is definitely coming to a document near you soon.

One last thought: My personal hope is that someone will take the open source Etherpad code and make an extension for MediaWiki. Can you imagine the increase in productivity (not to mention usage...) of Intellipedia with an extension that allowed easy real-time collaboration? Yoikes!
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Megan said...

Kris, This is a huge improvement. I am happy that Google took this step forward. I know how difficult it was to work with the clunky version before. Meg

Tom Algoe Hilbert College said...


You got me hooked on wikispaces and I continue to use it, at least for this semester, for my Strategic Intelligence Estimate projects. The collaborative changes to DOCS are certainly impressive but the interactive Google product that may prove most useful for team/class projects is Google WAVE. (wave.google.com). Tom

Steven said...

I wrote you once before from the Johns Hopkins Intel Analysis Masters program. We used Google Docs a lot in the program. Using a slide show presentation similar in style to Rolf Skyberg, we created a 99 slide presentation with Google Docs and Skype in about an hour. Worked great then, and these improvements will only help with collaboration across large geographic areas!