Google Documents: Pros and Cons

*NOTE: until your account is migrated (see migration dates here) you may not have access to all the features or your old mailbox in the Google Apps for Education.

What is Google Docs?

Included with our new email system is a feature known as Google Docs.  This is a suite of Microsoft Office-like products that allows for simple collaborative work on documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.   Although the interface and features are reminiscent of the familiar MS Office, it has both unique benefits and certain drawbacks.  Overall, it is a great way to share, collaborate, and build simple documents and spreadsheets but it does not include many of the advanced features of the MS Office suite.

What are some of the useful features of Google Docs?

1) Only one copy of the file exists and users ‘share’ this single copy, in real time, at the same time, and all users present can modify, update, and enter data at the same time.

This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of Google Docs.  You can create or upload presentations, documents, or spreadsheets and share them with ANYONE who has an account in the GMail system.  You can share these documents with any Google-connected person on earth, and since all Willamette faculty, staff, and students will have accounts on this system, you’re off to a great start!  You may also upload images and videos to Google Docs and share them with others.

2) All document modifications are automatically tracked with time and editor information.

Also a major benefit, this lets you see who made changes to the document, when they made the changes, and you can even revert back to an older version before the changes were made!  Documents are saved every few seconds, so you won’t lose anything if you accidentally close the browser window, lose power, spill coffee into your laptop, or casually drop it off a bridge.

3) Access documents from any Internet-connected computer and most mobile devices

iPhone?  Android?  Tablet?  You can access, edit, save, and share your documents from your mobile devices like iPads, phones, and tablets.  Taking notes during a meeting?  Have attendees connect to a single document and contribute to a combined, collaborative, single record of the discussions and action-related tasks so that everyone is, quite literally, on the same page.

4) Classroom group assignments, whole-class collaboration, and interactive lecture contribution are a breeze!

It's now quite common to attend conferences where the speaker begins with “Here’s the shared Google doc, let’s all jump in and start a list of comments and questions.”  Students can connect from any number of devices and engage the professor up on the screen, add their data sets to a collective spreadsheet, or even generate slides in a presentation constructed in real-time during class.  It is a very new and engaging classroom dynamic with loads of pedagogical possibility.

What Google Docs limitations exist?

1) Printing

Printing from Google Docs is not straight-forward like it is in Office.  You can download your doc in various formats (Word, PDF, etc) and then print it from your local computer, or use the web browser’s standard “print” command (although this results in extra stuff in the header/footer regions of your document).

2) Formatting

Complex formatting features are best left to MS Office products, but Google Docs does allow for headers, footers, various font sizes, about 18 different fonts, sub and super-script, and standard page/paragraph indent and layout options.  You can insert images and hyperlinks as well.  Don’t even bother trying to generate envelopes or mailing labels with Google Docs, it’s just not worth the trouble.

3) Editing

Standard right-click features most Windows users are accustomed to don’t really function in Google Docs.  Instead, you must use tool-bar commands like “Edit, Copy” and "Edit, Paste" or press "CTRL-C" to copy and "CTRL-V" to paste text.

4) File Formats

In order to edit documents in Google Docs, they must be in special Google Docs formats.  If you upload an MS Word document with lots of formatting...it’s unpredictable what may happen, it may not even be legible!  If you want to upload existing documents and then edit them, you’ll need to have Google convert them upon upload.  This may remove custom layout, font, and formatting from the document. You can re-convert these files back to Word or Excel when you download them, but they won’t really look the same as your original.

5) Access

If you’re not on-line, your out of luck.  This is a web-based set of applications and you need a live connection to the Internet to view, modify, save, or print files that reside in Google Docs.  Download files in WORD format to work on them locally, then upload them when you have an Internet connection to once again allow access to others.

Summary and Links

In summary, Google Docs is a very useful collaborative tool allowing multiple users to access, edit, and review a single document available from virtually any Internet-connected device.  It has plenty of standard features for a web-based product, but does not replace the functionality of MS Office applications.  It is free, easy to use, easy to share materials, and easy to employ as a classroom learning tool.  Just click DOCUMENTS when logged in to your Willamette GMail account and see how Google Docs can help you create, relate, and collaborate!

Access your Google Docs directly: wudocs.willamette.edu

Or within Gmail - Log in to your Google Apps for Willamette University account. In the upper left region click on 'Documents'

For usage instructions, visit the Google Docs Help site.