Probably the best ed-tech tool for higher-education
I’ve had the opportunity to look at a good many technology tools used for education and I must agree with Larry Cuban’s famous take on computers in the classroom almost 20 years ago as Oversold and underused . In spite of bold promises from vendors from blackboards to Blackboard, there is little evidence that educational technology has had much impact on the classroom in any meaningful way. Ironic, since computers have had left an indelible mark on almost all human endeavors, except education.
One exception to this trend is Google Docs, particularly in higher-ed. They are a lightweight, easy to use, and very malleable tool for encouraging student collaboration in the classroom. Instructors from K to 20 regularly use Google Docs for a wide range of activities, form shared research efforts to classroom discussion. Assuming students have a Gmail account, which most college students do, it is easy to share information between the class and instructors in a frictionless manner.
Google has enhanced the basic functionality of the tools by wrapping them in an LMS-like framework they call Google Classroom, where you can create rosters and assignments, but the true value in my mind is a more casual use of the apps themselves. There are even third-party Chrome extensions, like Doctopus which provide similar roster functions .
Google Docs origin story
Google Docs was based on a series of acquisitions of small startup companies who were experimenting with a technology known as AJAX , a term championed by web-experience designer Jesse James Garrett to provide a desktop application experience within a web browser. Using the web before AJAX consisted of surfing page to page, but AJAX made individual pages more dynamic, able to instantly change and react to user actions.
Google Sheets sprang from the acquisition of the XL2Web product in 2005. In 2006, Google acquired UpStartle  whose highly collaborative online word-processor worked like a simple version of Microsoft Word. Their Writely product was an early example of a compelling and dynamic web-app. Google also acquired another high-profile collaborative editor in 2009 called EtherPad, whose letter-by-letter collaboration capabilities were rolled into the Google Docs tools, making group editing in a classroom environment a delightful experience.
Most corporate acquisitions don’t work out as well as Writely’s. Usually, the founders of the acquired company leave after a year or two and their original products either are absorbed into other products (like EtherPad) or simply wither on the vine in the new environment. The Writely team Writely has flourished within Google and is largely responsible for the success of the Google Docs suite of tools .
Docs as a convenient collaborative database
At UVA, we’ve been relying on Google Docs as an easy and convenient database to store data for our various digital humanities projects, such as Qmedia, SHIVA, and VisualEyes  for almost a decade now. In the old days, we used to use complex and difficult to maintain MySQL databases to store project data. This made it tough for collaborative projects, and especially ones based in the classroom.
VisualEyes, a tool for creating compelling interactive visualizations is a good example. I’ve been using VisualEyes to teach project-based learning undergraduate seminars where students create a visualization on a particular topic, in this case, cultural change in Tibet after China. Students worked in groups of three on various aspects of the topic, each with their own shared Docs spreadsheet. The sheet was dynamically linked to the visualization so that any changes they made could be seen in real time. You can view the final project here: www.viseyes.org/identity.
Using Docs to facilitate discussion
During class discussions, we had a shared Google Doc to jot down ideas, and each group had their own Doc for their individual topic. My co-instructor, Ana Cristina Lopes, an anthropologist in Tibetan Buddhism, and I would monitor the multiple student groups and walk over when it looked like they were off the track. It made the problem of working with small groups much more manageable and made us much more responsive to their needs in real time, instead of our usual tact of furtively roaming the classroom. It allowed them to to be more connected with each other, and be aware of other groups efforts, so we were able to create a coherent whole from a bunch of parts.
Several years ago, we introduced a tool called PrimaryAccess  that enabled middle-school students to create mini “Ken Burns-like” documentaries using primary source images and narrating them with their own voices. One of its Achilles heels (aside from using Flash) was its reliance on a complicated database teachers has to navigate to assign projects to students, with the requisite double-logins, lost passwords, etc. This year we are redesigning it to run in HTML5, using Google Docs to manage the process and make it seamless for busy teachers to use.
Google Docs has been one of the few ed-tech tools I regularly use in my teaching, aside from the ones we build here. I suppose Google may one day discontinue it, or charge a premium, but for now, it’s been immensely useful.
About Bill Ferster
Bill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia and a technology consultant for organizations using web-applications for ed-tech, data visualization, and digital media. He is the author of Sage on the Screen (2016, Johns Hopkins), Teaching Machines (2014, Johns Hopkins), and Interactive Visualization (2012, MIT Press), and has founded a number of high-technology startups in past lives. For more information, see www.stagetools.com/bill.
- Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and underused: Computers in schools. Harvard University Press