Online Office: Getting Started with Google Docs


One of the "hallmarks" of Web 2.0 technology is the idea of the Internet becoming not just "a place we go," but an application, allowing users to perform "software" tasks (such as word processing and image editing) online, inside a web browser. Probably the best example of this trend is the development of several online office suites, including ThinkFree, Zoho Office and Google Docs, which allow users to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations online, for free.

Google Docs in Plain English from our friends at CommonCraft

What's all the fuss?

While it doesn't include every advanced feature of traditional desktop office software, Google docs has many attractive features including some that traditional desktop software can't match. And they are always adding new features. Here are a few of the highlights.

  • It's free. Microsoft office costs a home user about $300, a student or teacher at least $100.
  • It's easy. If you are familiar with the basic toolbar functions in Word, Excel and Powerpoint, you should find Google Docs fairly intuitive to navigate..
  • Documents are stored online and accessible from any computer. There is only one copy of each document, and you can never lose it.
  • It's compatible with Microsoft Office (and other file formats), allowing importing/uploading of existing documents, spreadsheets and presentations, and downloading/exporting of files to edit in Microsoft Office.
  • It's collaborative. Share documents with other users and edit them simultaneously! One useful classroom application would be for a teacher to give feedback on a student essay or paper within the Google doc, rather than on a printed version. Also great for peer-editing.
  • It offers built-in revision history. Google saves every version of a document with a time stamp and username (like a wiki), allowing users to
    • Compare any two versions of a document, seeing exactly what has changed.
    • Know precisely which content was contributed by each user. (e.g. teachers can evaluate and track student contributions over time).
    • Easily revert to an old version at any time.
  • Chat feature: Google spreadsheets allows users to discuss a file while working on it. Google presentations allows viewers to discuss the presentation while watching it online!
  • Instant forms: Create a survey, poll or other form and email it to selected respondents, or publish it to the web and send the link to desired participants. Results are instantly stored in a Google spreadsheet.
  • Many sharing and publishing options.
    • Documents can be public or private (unshared); Collaborators may be invited as editors or only as viewers.
    • Documents may be Published to the web for viewing as a web page. Simply share the URL on a website or in email.
    • Spreadsheets and presentations are embeddable in other web pages (such as wikis).
    • When you make changes to a Published document, the Published version updates automatically when the document is saved.
    • Use Google docs as a simple way to create web pages that share links (Example - Peek's Page)
    • Track changes to any published document via RSS feed.

Discovery Exercise: Explore Google Docs

Google Docs:

Create a new "word" document Practice using several formatting tools and features. As you explore, consider ways you might incorporate Google Docs into your classroom, professional or personal life.