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Making the Most of Google Apps

Google reports that over 10 million students are currently using Google Apps. The wide variety of functions and available features can help you increase your productivity as an online student. These tools are not only growing in popularity for their utility, but also because they are easy to access and free to use. 

Google Apps are even being adopted at the institution level in higher education. A wide variety of schools are moving in this direction including Arizona State University, Thunderbird School of Global Management, and Virginia's Community Colleges just to name a few.

The Google Apps for Education program works with schools to provide coordinated access to tools, such as email, calendars, and document storage. Google applications are web-based and allow you to access their functions and any stored information from any computer. This cloud-based approach for the management of services allows higher education institutions to meet the needs of students and faculty while focusing their information technology resources on other priorities.

Getting Started

If you already have an account with Google, perhaps you use GMail or Blogger for example, your existing login will get you access to these applications. If you don't already have an account you can set one up online. How can these tools be leveraged to help an online student? Seven Google Apps are profiled below with examples of how students are currently using them to collaborate on project materials, communicate in multiple ways, stay organized in their programs, and manage their schedules.  

Google Docs

This app offers web-based word processing tools for the creation and management of documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. You can allow others to edit these materials – with access via a URL – making the tool helpful for group projects and assignments! Your team members can create and work together (at the same time or at different times) to write and edit, then export for submission to your instructor. Since it's web-based, you don't have to worry about emailing copies to each other or figuring out which version is the latest one. Both undergraduate and graduate students are finding ways to use Google Docs for everything from study groups to note taking. One reminder: it's always a good idea to save a copy to your computer periodically as a back up!

Google Calendar

Once you set up your Google Calendar you can sync it with other online calendar functions, such as on your mobile phone. You may choose to share your calendar with others or track multiple calendars in one view. Why not create a calendar for your course that includes all of your assignments and online sessions? How about creating a calendar for a group project? Your group members can be granted access so that everyone can see dates and tasks and schedule group meetings across time zones. You can also access your calendar information offline. Google Calendar has some helpful features, such as meeting reminders, to keep you on track. Read one professor's recommendations for student use of Google Calendars.

Google Reader

Create a single access point for all of the websites, news feeds, and blogs you want to follow. Google Reader will keep track of the latest content published on your collection of sites and provide advanced tools to help keep you organized. Mashable provides instructions for organizing Google Reader folders, as well as short cuts. Getting all of your subscriptions in one collection is the first step, making the interface more user-friendly so you'll return to the collection often is the next step. Your online course may be delivered in a learning management system that allows you to subscribe to a feed for your course announcements. Consider adding these feeds to your Google Reader!

Google Sites

Google Sites, like Google Docs and Calendar, also offers an opportunity for collaboration, but with more advanced functions. This tool offers a quick and easy way to set up and manage a website that can be used in multiple ways. Take a look at some of the template samples to find out more. Think about how this tool might work for a class assignment or presentation, to allow for small groups to work together on a project, or as a collaborative wiki. You can embed calendars, images, videos and task lists, as well as store files and manage discussions. Once you create the site, you can decide who has access to view and to edit. Here is one student's use of Google Sites as a portfolio tool.

Google Forms

Google Forms is actually a feature of Google Docs, but with a unique function. With Google Forms you can create a questionnaire or survey that can be sent to others via URL. You can use this tool to conduct a simple poll of your classmates or implement more complex data collection for a research project. The forms you create can also be embedded in your website. Take a look at a basic example of a Google Form used as a survey tool. 

Google Talk

How can you meet with your online classmates and instructors? This application offers multiple ways to communicate including instant messaging and video and voice calls. There are currently different versions based on your operating system, but you'll find options for PC, Mac, and Linux users alike. You may be using other online communication systems that allow for real-time conversation, such as Skype or Facetime. Google Talk allows you to integrate this function with other Google applications.


iGoogle allows you to create a customizable homepage. In addition to choosing colorful themes you can mix and match the items that appear on your page. Examples of these items, or gadgets, include your Google email and your Google apps – Reader, Calendar, Talk and Docs. You can also personalize the dashboard with weather and news feeds, games, and much more. Read about one teacher's suggestion that iGoogle can be used a replacement for traditional student planners

Putting the Applications to Work for You

As you may already be aware, this isn't a complete list of Google tools. There are many, many more out there that may be helpful to you. Consider subscribing to the Google For Students blog to find out more about all of the available applications and hear about new features as they become available. 

While this post has been focused on Google, there are other options out there. Zoho is just one example of another suite of applications that can be leveraged for use by an online student. Functions include email, collaboration tools, and productivity applications.

Some functions and features will meet your needs better than others. Spend a little time exploring and experimenting a bit to find the specific resources that will help you stay organized, on schedule, and communicating effectively with your classmates and instructors.