Tag Archives: google

Three things I wish Google Documents would let me do

Let me preface this article by saying that I really like Google Documents. It’s a fantastic set of tools that extends basic office functionality to the web in really compelling ways. I’ve been incorporating Google Docs pretty centrally in my courses for the last few years — for example, I no longer hand out paper syllabi on the first day of classes but instead write the syllabi on GDocs and distribute the links; and I’ve given final exams on Google Docs with links to data that are housed in Google Spreadsheets. I love being able to create a document on the web and just leave it there for students (or whoever) to come see, collaborate, and comment — without having to keep track of paper and with virtually zero chance of losing my data. (If Google crashes, we have much bigger problems than the loss of a set of quiz data.)

But like anything, Google Documents isn’t perfect — and in particular, there are at least three things that I wish Google Documents would do that would push my really like-ness to unqualified love:

1. Bring back the old Equation Editor. A couple of years ago, Google rolled out an equation editor for Google Docs that was just beautiful — a small editor that had point-and-click features for adding equations and the ability to parse \LaTeX commands. In other words, it was a mini-\LaTeX editor built right into Google Docs that would implement almost any of the essential functionality of \LaTeX, including matrices, multi-line equations, and more. I remember discovering this editor two years ago and promptly writing up every single one of my linear algebra activities as Google Documents. Then, inexplicably, Google replaced this sweet \LaTeX goodness with a stripped-down equation editor that pales in comparison, supporting only a tiny fraction of \LaTeX‘s command set, and in particular no matrices or multi-line equations. And the “new” editor is clunky and doesn’t seem to produce very good results. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of why this change to a clearly-inferior editor was made. It can’t be because it was overtaxing Google’s system! This is Google, for goodness’ sake, and it’s 2011 — can’t we have a real \LaTeX editor for Google Docs? There’s already one for GMail, you know.

2. Allow comments and discussion threads on PDF’s uploaded to Google Documents. From a teacher’s perspective, one of the most compelling possibilities for Google Docs is to have students upload their class work on Google Docs and then initiate a running discussion thread on that work. Such a thing would replace the usual system of handing in work and having the teacher write comments on it, thereby turning the grading process into something more like a conversation. You can do this with documents created in Google Docs. But if you want students to create mathematical work — since, as I just noted, the current equation editor for GDocs doesn’t get the job done — students would have to create their work in MS Word or \LaTeX, convert to a PDF, and then upload it. No problem, except that discussion threads and comments aren’t allowed on uploaded documents. The option simply isn’t there in the menu system. Google acknowledges that comments and comment threads are only available on newly-created documents, and functionality is coming for older documents — but no word on uploaded documents. If this could be made to happen, grading student work suddenly gets a whole lot more interesting (and valuable for students).

3. Auto-shorten URL’s of links to documents. OK, this is pretty minor, because all I have to do is copy the URL given to me by Google and run it through bit.ly. But since Google already has its own URL shortener, why not just auto-compress the URL using that shortener at the moment the URL is generated? It saves a few clicks and makes users happier because we don’t have to deal with URL’s that are multiple dozens of characters long. And more practically, it makes Google Docs easier for novices to use — many new users (I’m envisioning a good portion of students in my classes who I’d like to get to use Google Docs) have no idea that URL shorteners exist.

What else would you add to this list? Better yet, are there hacks or workarounds that resolve these issues? (Or, thirdly, am I just mistaken on any of this?)

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Filed under LaTeX, Social software, Teaching, Technology, Web 2.0

Google Wave and disruptive simplicity

Google Wave

Image via Wikipedia

Google today announced that it will be suspending development on Google Wave, the communications tool it launched last year. Wave attracted unprecedented hype in the run-up to its launch, with Wave invites serving as a kind of geek status symbol and going for $70 on eBay. But despite the initial enthusiasm, Google reports that Wave “has not seen the user adoption we would have liked”.

I used Wave once or twice once I managed to get an invite. It was one of the most befuddling experiences I have ever had using technology. Wave was supposed to be a sort of combination instant messenger, email, and file-sharing software platform with social media inputs and outputs. But like a lot of attempts to combine existing  services and solutions, instead of being “both-and”, Wave ended up being “neither-nor”. You could IM with Wave, but it lacked the simplicity of a basic IM client. You could send messages with Wave like email, but why do that when users already had GMail? You could post maps and files, but in my experience anything beyond basic messaging was buggy and complicated. I saw somebody say online that the feeling they got using Wave must be like the feeling elderly people get when they have to use computers at all. That sums up my experience with Wave pretty economically.

Wave was a bold attempt to abstract the entire idea of “messaging” into one coherent service. But it lacked one very important thing that makes disruptive ideas stick: simplicity. It really doesn’t matter how innovative or disruptive your technology is. The plain truth is that if it’s complicated, nobody is going to want to use it. Nobody, that is, outside a small circle of enthusiasts who appreciate the technology for what it is. There’s nothing wrong with being an enthusiast. But most people are not enthusiasts, and so it’s no surprise that Wave lacked user adoptions when many people who tried to use it couldn’t find a problem it could solve that wasn’t already solved by something simpler.

Google loses nothing by canceling Wave, of course, and in all likelihood we’ll see Wave re-emerge down the line as something that really does change our lives. Google would do well to remember that it’s the simple things that tend to be the most disruptive.

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Two questions about Google Docs

1. Why is it that, in Google Spreadsheets, you can take a two-column set of numerical data and find the slope of the regresssion line for the data, you can find the y-intercept of the regression line, and you can make a scatterplot of the data — but you can’t plot the regression line on top of the scatterplot?

2. How come, in Google Documents, there’s no rudimentary equation editing? How come we can’t have a simple Equation Editor-like pallette system for mathematical typesetting,  inline \LaTeX compiling (like WordPress.com blogs and Wikispaces wikis have), OpenOffice’s math typesetting syntax, or even just old-school MathML editing?

I’d be nearly ecstatic, and much more likely to actually use Google Docs for everyday purposes, if some of the smart people at Google could make either one of these two questions go away.

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Crypto two-fer

  • Have you seen the NSA Kids website yet? It’s pretty nifty. High school math and science teachers, you should get your students on there. I am eagerly awaiting somebody to make it into an animated show on Disney or early-morning Discovery Channel for my two girls. (Anything, for the love of God, to displace my 4-year-old’s obsession with Hi-5.) 
  • Also pretty nifty is the Spelman College Science Olympiad, which has teams from historically black colleges and universities competing in teams to solve problems in programming Google Gadgets (Google is a sponsor of the event), cryptography, website design, hardware/software integration, and robotics. All in the space of one weekend! Sounds like a lot of fun, and it seems like a really good way to promote computer science education on the college level. [h/t here to the Official Google Blog]

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Filed under Higher ed, Math, Technology