Google Apps for Higher Education

Andy Tattersall identifies five ways in which Google could increase its uptake in academia.

Page 1 of 3 next >>

At The University of Sheffield we have been using Google Apps for Education for about four years, and as many of my colleagues know I’m a big advocate of the technology giant’s move into education and collaboration, and have been for almost a decade. Nevertheless, I’m still wary of some of their practices.

Like many of my peers I enjoy the benefits of using Forms for questionnaires and knowledge gathering, Docs for collaborative document writing, even penning a journal article via live Google Doc paper slams with two of my colleagues. I love the ease of meeting the very same people in a Hangout to work on the paper and donning the funny augmented fake moustaches at the same time. Yet there are a few things missing that would really turn this powerful suite of tools into a truly academic productivity suite.

Academic understanding

Most people I work with agree that Docs are great, their simplicity and ability for true synchronous collaboration is without doubt a winner. Docs are what the Web generation were waiting for whilst Microsoft were left sleeping with their tired, but trusted Office platform. Docs may not have all of the functionality that Word has, but that is changing thanks to a collection of new add-ons including thesaurus, table of contents and even a track changes tool that is almost taking Docs back to Word for those uncomfortable with the comments option.

Yet one thing for academics is still missing and that is reference management software integration. For any higher education students, especially those taking Masters or PhD level studies and academic research staff the addition of a proper cite-while-you-write plug in would be a big step forward. Docs does have the EasyBib citation generator, but at present the application is limited to searching Google for either a title, ISBN, DOI, or Keyword. In addition it only has a very limited number of citation styles, when compared to the likes of Mendeley, which have thousands.

Another option a colleague brought to my attention was the Google Add-on Paperpile which does have potential with its cite-while-you-write function. It isn’t free, but at less than £30 a year is probably worth investigation. To use Paperpile you need to export your Mendeley or Endnote, et al references and PDFs, whilst it works effortlessly in Chrome. Paperpile is a step in the right direction, but perhaps still feels too lightweight compared to the established reference management applications - time will tell. Applications used in academic research and teaching departments such as Endnote and RefWorks are capable of managing thousands of references easily. The issue isn’t about whether an add-on can insert references or import a few dozen but whether a large scale, structured collection of references can be inserted easily into an essay, journal paper or book and a bibliography be created in a variety of citation styles. Until such as Mendeley, Zotero or another reference management application resolves that issue, Docs will really only be fit for small articles and essays not systematic reviews or large scale reports. The reason for this is not down to such as Paperpile’s inability as it may well be capable of this, but academics need to see the tools they trust achieve this. If you have used Endnote for 20 years you need to know the next tool you move on to will be a step forward with minimum fuss. In addition students and academics would need to move away from Firefox and for some Internet Explorer as more of these tools appear within Chrome, that is still a hurdle many are not yet ready to take. Obviously not all of this is Google’s fault, but like their take on Social Media, their slowness on the uptake with regards to a real reference management solution means it could be some time before we see widespread serious academic use of Docs.

Page 1 of 3 next >>