Getting Good With Google Docs

from Educators' eZine

I have been using Microsoft Word for decades. There have been passing relationships with Clarisworks and WordPerfect, but for all its flaws MS Word has stood the test of time and seen me through hours and hours of document creation. So when someone tried to introduce me to Google Docs I hardly gave it a glance.

Months later I took a second look. I was in a committee meeting struggling to compose a document with three other people. The evening was getting late and we didn't want to meet again just to complete our document. Google Docs to the rescue! The next day I imported a Word document with notes from the meeting, made a few changes and shared the revised version with the other members via Email. They each followed a link in my Email, viewed the document and made their changes. In two days the document was finished without having to call another meeting.

The Google Docs workspace looks very similar to that of other word processors. There is a tool bar at the top of the screen and blank space to start typing. You can import documents from other formats or start composing on the blank page. The keyboard shortcuts for copy, cut and paste are the same as for Word and for Claris Works. A yellow highlighted Check Spelling link at the bottom of the document window performs a spell check of the entire document.

If you want to collaborate with someone (or several people) on the creation of a document, Google Docs makes it easy. One person creates the first draft and then sends a link to the other collaborators via the Collaborate tab.

The file is stored on Google's site. All collaborators have access without using their own server space or an expensive commercial software program. The Revisions feature allows collaborators to compare versions of the document and see who made which changes and when. Each revision of the document is stored as a separate file so you can always look back to previous versions. A status bar at the bottom of the screen tells you if someone else is currently editing the document. Up to fifty people can view and/or edit a single document at one time. Students (even those without Word) could collaborate on group documents and the teacher can see who made which contributions. Google Docs could also be used for peer editing projects.

Access via Internet
Having the file stored on Google's site is an advantage for people who move from computer to computer. No more remembering to save the file to your flash drive before you leave school. Just save your Google Doc and when you go home you can access the most recent version. Even if there's no Internet access where you are word processing is no real problem and you can still use Google Docs. Simply create your file while you are off-line and then import it into Google Docs when you want to collaborate or publish it. Currently the Mac-based browser, Safari, is not supported. However, Firefox is supported on the Mac platform.

Each user has a limit of 1000 documents and 1000 images. Each individual document can be up to 500KB, not including embedded images. Formatted text creates larger documents than unformatted text and choices of font and page formatting clearly make documents vary widely. You will get about twenty-five pages of formatted text in a 50KB file. Of course you could always break larger documents into multiple files. If you embed images in your document, each image is limited to 2MB. According to Google Docs 'Help' you can upload documents from any of the following file formats:

  • HTML
  • Plain text (.txt)
  • Microsoft Word
  • .rtf
  • Open Office (.odt)

The public aspect of a document stored on a Web server may concern some users. Google assures users that unless they make documents public, they cannot be found by anyone not invited to share the document. To test this, I used Google to search for my documents, and didn't find any of them. See the Google Docs and Spreadsheets Help Center for more information.

Different from Wiki
If you are familiar with wikis, you may be wondering why you wouldn't just create a wiki, also highly collaborative and Web-based, instead of a Google Doc. The answer is that the format tools available in Google Docs set it apart from wikis. The basic keyboard shortcuts for italics, bold, and underline all work in Google Docs. You can create a bulleted list or change font size and color with one click on the tool bar.

Blogger Tools
There are several handy features for bloggers. You can post to your blog directly from Google Docs using the Publish tab.

It took me a few tries to get my blog settings (user ID, password and host) configured correctly. However, settings established posting from Google Docs is very easy. In contrast, I have used my old friend, Word, to compose blog posts and have found it cumbersome. In Word hyperlinks don't transfer and you have to add images after pasting. Google Docs carries over any hyperlinks that you create and even transfers embedded images beautifully without having to code in HTML. I did have to add the title and tags to the post afterwards. I will be looking for this feature in future versions of Google Docs.

If you want the world to have access to view your document, you can publish it in a blog or make your document public by sharing the link. To do this you click the Publish tab and click the Publish Document button. You are given a link to share. If an authorized collaborator follows the link it opens the Google Docs program with the document in question already loaded. For other viewers it opens an HTML document with a white background and your formatted text and images.

Google Docs is so easy to use that most people can start by just creating their first document. You do have to create a Google account if you don't have one, but you do not need a Gmail account. None of the members of my committee had ever used Google Docs before. I sent them a link and no one had any trouble.

If you want to get to know Google Docs before making a commitment, you can take the Google Docs and Spreadsheets Tour. Or you can take a look at the Google Doc that I created for this article.

Email:Laura B. Fogle