Google Apps for Higher Education

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

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Better offline

From my experience the one thing that really puts academics and students off using Google Apps is their restricted functionality for working offline. I have a Chromebook and have conducted most of my work for the last five years in the Cloud.  I know there are certain things I can do like create my own personal hotspots should wifi not be available or simply have some papers with me to read in the event of a wifi-free train journey. Yet for many students and academics they still travel around with USB sticks or use desktop based software such as Microsoft Office.

In recent years Google Docs have almost taken a step backwards with a nod to Microsoft with offline version of documents in Drive and track changes as an add on. Yet offline email and documents is still not really taking off for many Google App users as they have been used to moving in one direction, that being totally cloud based. Yet as I have experienced wifi is not consistent or fast enough in many places in the UK, whilst open and free wifi locations are not always the safest place to work on a sensitive document due to the risks of being hacked or spied on. The move towards Dropbox style functionality of Drive has been a good one, but still there needs to be more fluidity and ease to the switch between offline and online and between various platforms. Obviously this is something Google is working on and getting better at as there are now more options, although offline editing in IOS and Android still appears to be unavailable, whilst you can only use offline in the Chrome browser. The nature of Google is to be online, and in the future that is where we will all be working, but until wifi networks become faster and more reliable, Google will have to try harder to be offline as well as online in their attempt to win over more students and academics.

A connected world

Google has built and collected a diverse and growing toolbox of useful tools that have changed the way many work in academia for ever. For many there is no going back to Outlook, Word or PowerPoint, yet despite the uniformity and ease that Google Apps afford the user there is still one thing missing. Anyone who has ever used project management tools such as Huddle or SharePoint, or at our own institution a tool called uSpace created by Jive, will understand the feeling of working within a bubble. That all of the tools within the wider package all feel enclosed. This is by no means a statement saying SharePoint and uSpace are better than Google Apps as they are not, by a long chalk. Yet for Google to really step into the education arena they need to have the feel of a virtual learning environment (VLE) or project management suite like Huddle. There is no question that the majority of Google Apps work together and most have small learning curves, if you learn Docs you’ve almost learned Blogger, if you can use Blogger you’re not far off from mastering Sites. Even though at my institution the Apps sit safely behind a password and are all accessible from one menu that includes Groups, Contacts, Maps, Blogger, YouTube amongst others, there is still an air of desperateness about them. Yes you can embed a video in a blog, you can add a Doc to a Site, it all works very well it all connects and embeds nicely. Yet you cannot see the collections of docs, groups and videos in one place such as you can in our VLE. The benefits are simple in that you can group discussions, documents, blogs in one place and view them at a glance with one big overview. Of course you can do this to some extent with Sites, or embed Apps within your VLE but if it was that simple we would be seeing more examples of it, whilst it just feels a bit unwieldy and a workaround. Whether Google’s game-plan is to create a VLE to rival such as Blackboard I don’t know, or they might even consider buying a VLE and drop in the suite wholesale.

Google Apps for Education is without doubt a powerful collection of tools, and as anyone who has used them will know they do not rest on their laurels. The set of tools will continue to grow and advance and by addressing these five issues they will see a huge uptake in their usage in academia.


Andy Tattersall is an information specialist working at ScHARR.


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