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One of the tools cited by students as most helpful was the free set of tools provided by Google, known colloquially as “Google Docs“.  If you haven’t run into them yourself, these free, online tools include simplified word process, presentation software, a spreadsheet, and form creator (often used currently for short surveys), and a drawing program.  In most cases, they do not have the sophistication and range of features found in commercially available tools such as the Microsoft Office Suite, but their feature set often does the trick for most basic uses of these tools.  The word processing program, in particular is a perfectly adequate tool for producing term papers.  But the biggest claim to fame I found for my classroom use was the ability for groups to edit documents collaboratively and simultaneously.  This is a feature that I’ve been employing with co-writers for more than a year — freeing research groups from purchasing special access to systems such as Basecamp or Huddle.

The Good

When I introduced this set of tools to my students, I was extremely surprised to find that nearly all of them were entirely unfamiliar with Google docs, despite the adoption of Google apps by our campus more than a year ago.  They used commercial software in their freshman composition course, which costs each student about $40 under our campus agreement, but they were unaware that a free set of tools were an alternative that they could use now …. and more importantly, after they have graduated.

As college educators, we constantly ask ourselves how much do we need to teach the so-called digital natives about new developments in digital communication.  We assume that students will be ahead of us in adopting these tools, but as Joanna Goode pointed out in a recent article (Goode, J. (2010). The digital identity divide: how technology knowledge impacts college students. New Media & Society, 12(3), 497-513.), many students are not exposed to essential tools informally.  Hence, instructors need to check with students and be prepared to point them in the direction of computer tools and techniques that will aid them in achieving academic success.

For my students, the suite of free tools was perfectly adequate for most assignments – and it allowed them to do more collaborative work with fellow students.  Several reported during the term that Google docs had allowed their groups to succeed in completing assignments for different classes, encouraging more participation from the whole group instead of the tendency for one or two people to do all of the work because they alone could meet face to face to do the assignments.

For my class, we often used these tools for small group engagement over readings as well as preparation for group teach-backs and practicing instruction with educational technology.

The Problematic

Some tools in the Google apps suite are still in development.  While the word processor was robust and full-featured, the spreadsheet and drawing programs could not complete with the commercial solutions.  Microsoft‘s Excel still has more formulas and a stronger graphing feature set that make it a better choice for creating spreadsheets even for simple tasks like creating a course grade book.

The Solutions

A small number of my students had difficulty throughout the term in using Google docs, especially in logging into the suite, even with their official campus ID.  Since mine was a course on educational technology, I used these situations as an example of how to do problem-solving to resolve technology glitches.  In some cases, we had to make do by creating an alternative, new log in for these students.   But many cases were occasions for patience and persistence … the willingness to find a work around to try later is an essential disposition in education, especially whenever trying out new techniques or tools.

Students generally found that the advantages of Google Docs …. especially the ability to edit a document by several people simultaneously …. outweighed the drawbacks.  But they also learned to do quick tests of concept to see if a feature set for a specific tool would be adequate for the assignment.  In my class, this was an important learning objective!  For professors using this suite for class, you probably should double check the feature set of any tool before you suggest it to students.  Since they often wait until the last minute to even start an assignment, this will lessen the likelihood of a “gotcha” situation and much frustration on the part of the students.

Overall, I look forward to seeing how Google extends their application suite.  If it remains free and readily accessible, many recent graduates will be able to keep using technology in their classrooms even with thin (and getting thinner) school budgets.