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The (Ongoing) Case for Google Drive


Microsoft’s Office is the most-used office productivity suite in the world. Redmond claims that one-in-seven humans currently uses the suite. The software is complex; Word itself boasts nearly 1,200 menu items according to an intrepid Google Forum user, Pat Garard, who counted them back in 2006. Though its ubiquity cannot be denied it has, to a degree, become the “devil we know”: a heavy, ponderous tool that does the job, but offers much room for simplification and improvement (especially on the collaboration front): enter Google Drive and its suite of Google Docs.

Drive & Docs may have only garnered one tenth the number of users as Office in its seven years, but there are a several reasons for its continued and growing popularity. All Gmail users automatically get 15GB of combined email and document storage on Mountain View’s servers. Google Drive documents can be shared (to view, comment, or edit) with anyone online. Practicing a less-is-more philosophy, the software has been simplified to focus on word processing, number crunching, or delivering presentations. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool Word ninja who depends on specific features like macros or track changes, you may find Google Drive lacking. But full revision history is baked into Drive documents and community-developed add-ons are extending the software’s functionality daily.

Most of Google’s competitors are quickly expanding into the collaboration space as well, offering means of simultaneously editing documents, but Drive has offered this since its inception and has a well-refined feature-set. Various levels of sharing can be specified for docs or folders*. Watching a Google Doc being simultaneously authored by a classroom full of students can be a mesmerizing, but very rewarding, experience. Anyone who has tried to reconcile the content of several versions of a Word document knows the value of collaboratively editing a single, centralized, cloud-based document.

Because documents are stored “in the cloud,” Google Drive pretty much requires a constant internet connection. This is both a blessing and a curse. Documents are constantly “streamed” to the server, which obviates the need for an “autosave” function. However, since all docs are stored remotely, there is no need to remember where-you-put-the-most-recent-copy-of-the-document-you’ve-been-working-on. All of your documents are located in your Drive account and since Google knows a thing or two about
search, it’s usually pretty easy to recover even long-lost documents you worked on years ago.

Google Drive works well with different file formats. Nearly any type of data, image, audio, video, text, or presentation file (forty different file types in all) can be uploaded and converted to Google Drive docs. Each type of document can be shared, embedded, or exported out of Drive into compatible offline formats as needed. For example, a simple URL tweak can provide an always-up-to-date downloadable PDF version of any document--a nice trick to use with syllabi or other docs that might require frequent updates. Students can simply click the link and download the most recent version.

If you have an opportunity to co-author a document with a peer or write something that you’ll share directly with your students, take a break from Word, fire up your account, and give Google Drive a shot!

\* A quick note about security (FERPA/HIPAA). Because Google Drive documents are so easily shared and may be stored on non-domestic servers, many universities, especially those that handle sensitive student data or medical records, are not allowed to use the Google Drive system. Educators should exercise caution when using Google Drive (or other systems not supported to handle sensitive information) in their teaching. There is a good article from UMN about what to look for and why.