Thursday, 1 September 2011

How I use Google Docs as a student

Shep McAllister is a rising senior at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, and editor of the popular student blog HackCollege. For the past several years, he has done his college coursework exclusively on Google Docs, and today he shares his five favorite uses for the platform in the classroom.

When I started out at Trinity University, I didn’t know much about Google Docs and relied heavily on desktop word processors. As I became increasingly frustrated with these programs crashing mid-sentence, I thought I’d give Google Docs a try. But what started as an experiment to test Google Docs for group projects and class notes quickly became a permanent solution for all of my schoolwork, and I haven’t looked back once. Here are a few of my favorite uses of Google Docs in college:

1. Work together on group projects
Before I started using Google Docs, group projects were a nightmare. A co-authored paper would fragment into a dozen different documents. Group presentations became last minute scrambles to get combine slides. Any information sharing about our project took place in splintered email threads. With Google Docs, my class groups are able work together on the same presentation or paper simultaneously while sharing links and ideas in a separate doc. The discussions feature released earlier this year made collaboration even simpler.

2. Take notes collaboratively
My classmates and I always get together near exam time to combine our notes and share ideas, so why not do it in real time? I work with friends to take in-class notes on a single Google doc, allowing everyone to come away with a more thorough set of notes than they could have written individually. I discuss this concept in more detail on my blog, HackCollege.

3. Convert PDFs and handouts to searchable text with Optical Character Recognition (OCR)
As a student, I get a lot of assigned reading as PDF files. Unfortunately, most of them are low-quality scans from the library, which makes it hard to search through them for keywords or make annotations. With Google Docs’ OCR capabilities, I’m able to upload a low-quality PDF and receive an editable text document in return. This also works well for any important handouts professors give out in class -- I just scan the handout and upload to Google Docs, keeping all of my class material in one place.

4. Save major assignments in the cloud
Writing important papers in Google Docs allows me to access my assignments and papers from any computer, anywhere. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stuck in the library without my laptop, or only have my smartphone handy. With Google Docs, it doesn’t matter, because all of my assignments are stored in the cloud, meaning I don’t have to be tethered to my laptop to get work done. This saved my sanity (and GPA) during finals last semester, when my computer crashed and was out of commission for over a week. Luckily, there was no need to panic, because I knew my final papers and study guides were tucked safely in the Google Docs cloud, instead of my dying hard drive.

5. Collect information from a group with forms
Before I started using Google Docs, organizing my classmates for a group dinner or campus event was a nightmare. Now, I use Google Docs to create web forms to send to my friends and classmates. My friends have gotten involved too, using it for keeping track of club participation, voting on housing for their fraternity’s beach weekend, and even conducting surveys for major research projects.

Posted by: Shep McAllister, HackCollege.com Blogger & Trinity University Student
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