Working Together

4/20/2007 By: Lindsay Oishi

from Technology & Learning

Google Apps goes to school.

Imagine you're working with teachers in your school to put together a multidisciplinary curriculum. Or that you are advising a student organization on how to pull off a school-wide event. You have multiple teams working on tasks, emails flying back and forth, important deadlines, and a headache from trying to set up meetings. How do you get organized?

As is increasingly the case these days, the answer may be by using the Net.

Online collaboration and project- management tools allow people to work together without being in the same place at the same time. But that's not all: Google Docs & Spreadsheets, for example, allows you to create documents and spreadsheets just like you do in Microsoft Word and Excel, but with more collaborative capacity. When your science class conducts an experiment, sign students up for a Google account (they probably already have one), and then send them an email invitation to enter their results in a single online spreadsheet. Your students can then look at all the data when they're at home working on their reports. Similarly, Google Calendar lets students or colleagues make an appointment with you by editing your calendar online or by sending you an email with an Add to Calendar button.

Google Calendar and Google Docs & Spreadsheets are part of an online tools package called Google Apps. The Education Edition of Apps is free for accredited, nonprofit schools and requires no new software or hardware. All you have to do is sign up on Google's Web site with proof of your education status and you get ad-free email for students, a calendar, chat, and a Web page maker. Google's Start Page provides single sign-in access to the Apps and is customizable. Arizona State University's Start Page, for example, has modules that provide school news and course information to students whenever they login.

The lead engineer for Google Apps, Derek Parham, points out that valuable interactive features in Apps make collaboration a lot easier. "If someone sends you a document, you can automatically transfer it to your Docs & Spreadsheets instead of downloading it, finding it, and opening it again," he says. "You don't have to think about what you're doing—it's done for you automatically, and it's seamless."

While Google Apps is a solid long-term solution for a range of IT needs, some situations call for tools with a narrower focus. If you're working on just a PTA fundraiser, say, wouldn't it be nice to get all the messages, to-do lists, and reports in one place, separate from everything else? For single jobs, Zoho.com's Projects application takes the grunt work out of teamwork. Students doing a presentation can use it to delegate tasks, view deadlines in a shared calendar, discuss ideas on a bulletin board, and store common files. They can even track time spent on each task to prevent procrastination. The key advantage is that students can use Zoho Projects to work on their presentation anytime and anywhere—as long as they have a computer connected to the Internet.


Google Docs & Spreadsheets allows multiple students to access and modify the same document and gives them the chance to comment as they work together.

Socialtext.com offers a less goal-oriented, more flexible online collaboration tool. It is essentially a wiki Web site, where users can edit content freely, but with features tht help organize the madness. Only invited users have access, and administrators can limit editing rights to certain viewers. Students using a Socialtext wiki for class could post notes from the day's lecture, cross-check each other's work, and add comments. A wiki written by multiple students or teachers would have an email button on each page so readers can identify experts in a curricular area and get help from the right people. A Socialtext knowledge database—like an internal Wikipedia—could encourage students to post the essays they are most proud of, leaving a legacy for future pupils. Or administrators could improve school hiring and disciplinary practices by setting up anonymous accounts to build a long-term online record of honest feedback.


Zoho's Projects app is good for single jobs; students can even track the amount of time spent on certain tasks to avoid falling behind.

Although Google Apps is free, most other providers limit free , most other providers limit free services and offer substantial upgrades to paying customers. Zoho supports a single free project; additional projects are $5 per month. Socialtext is free for up to five users and $95 per month for up to 20, but may have discounts for non-profit institutions. If the services profiled here don't suit your needs, you can also check out BlueTie (free for up to 20 users), Basecamp (free for one project or $12 per month for three), and iTeamwork (free).


Socialtext.com's limited-access wiki allows students to post work online and get feedback from their peers.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in learning sciences and technology design at Stanford University.

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