Google is the new Microsoft Word

Photo illustration by Brook Corwin

Injecting college courses with computer technology feels like a new — and potentially disrupting — trend. But it’s not something that only just emerged. Long before the buzz behind online degrees and massive open online courses, faculty started integrating and then requiring the use of Microsoft Office software to complete assignments. We take it for granted now, because everyone views Word, Excel and PowerPoint as required skills for the professional world, but it took years to reach that point. At first they were “disruptive” technologies, then just another standard element of a college class. Microsoft racked up a fortune as a result.

But Microsoft has since been usurped as the tech world’s giant, and not just by the folks at Apple. Earlier this month, Google inched into second place among tech companies in terms of total valuation. And it’s fitting, because Google has also inched past Microsoft in the role of academia’s tech partner in teaching.

I’m not talking about looking stuff up online.

What Google now provides as a teaching tool is a whole suite of apps that help with writing, researching, collaborating, presenting, and archiving. It’s the same stuff students have always done, only now the tools are more powerful. They won’t revolutionize the classroom, just make it more relevant and more connected. Here’s what’s available, all for free, and why it may soon become every bit as ubiquitous as a Microsoft Word doc.

The set-up.

There’s a fundamental difference between Google’s core products and the Microsoft Office you’re familiar with. While Microsoft Office files are created and stored on individual computers, files created through Google tend to live on remote servers in some Google facility far far away, delivered through cloud computing. This raises some concerns (they’re covered below) but also opportunities. What you create through Google can be accessible to everyone, or no one, based on who you choose. And it’s all free. Instead of downloading new software, all you need is a Google account to get started. The same one you set up for gmail. The university where I work uses gmail for all student/faculty accounts, so students come in with the log-in they need. If that’s not the case at your school, I still recommend asking students to get a separate Google account for class projects. It makes it easier to keep them organized that way, and maintains the personal/professional firewall that’s still a must have for many.

The tools.

Google Docs: The Google Word Doc takes the basic interface you’re familiar with from Microsoft Word, strips out all the unnecessary features, and simplifies the process of writing a paper. For that reason alone it should become standard. But its real power comes from being able to share files with others. Every document created starts out private, with the creator choosing who in their contact list can have the privilege to view. Faculty can edit and provide feedback on papers in real time. Students can collaborate on the same file for a group project. And anyone can see who contributed what. The old versions are even saved as backups, should someone delete something by accident.

Google Hangouts: As a social network, Google+ has often been deemed a failure because it set out to challenge Facebook and yet can only generate a fraction of the activity. But that shouldn’t diminish the appeal of Google Hangouts, a feature built into Google+ that allows for real-time video chats. This is similar to Skype, but it’s powered to handle several live video/audio feeds at once. Plus it’s a bit easier to set up, there’s the option to record to YouTube, and the program automatically switches whomever’s talking onto the largest screen. So it’s perfect for group projects, presentations, or faculty office hours. Scheduling these becomes easy once anyone can join from almost anywhere.

Google Sites: Whether you’re teaching distance or face-to-face, it’s useful to have some lecture content available online. If students can view your text, photos, videos, and links on their own time, that frees up the classroom for discussion and hands-on teaching. There are lots of ways to set up a website without having to code, but Google sites is among the best of the free options, and it gives you the same controls as Google docs on controlling who can view the site.

Google Drive: All the files created through Google Docs sit on Google Drive, which is like a personal hard drive that can store your files remotely. You can upload your photos, readings, and old Microsoft documents here, organized into folders by class. Then share a folder with anyone you’d like to give access to, with options to edit or add comments. It’s an easier and more efficient way to share resources and research, eliminating the confusion and cumbersome steps of emailing files back and forth.

The concerns.

If you’re not used to it already, saving files to a remote server can feel unnerving. You can’t physically hold the file. You can’t even physically hold the computer that’s storing the file. So there’s a natural feel that it’s unsecured. But the truth is that you’re far more likely to lose a file on your hard drive than one on a Google server. PC hard drives crash, get infected, or lost. I’ve lost hundreds of files this way, but never lost any of the thousands of files I’ve stored over the years on remote servers. The bottom line: don’t upload anything extremely sensitive to Google, but 97 percent of the materials used for class will be fine. And keep a back-up on your personal hard drive just to put yourself at ease.

The pay-off.

Don’t use technology for technology’s sake. Hire technology to do the mundane jobs you don’t want to do. No one wants to waste time organizing files, sending lots of emails, or waiting to get feedback. No one wants to travel every time they need to communicate information for class. Google apps for education does all that work for you, putting the focus back on the teaching. There will be a learning curve. There was a learning curve with Microsoft Office at first. But pretty soon proficiency in Google products will be expected in the workplace. Get a heads-up now, and make your class better in the process.