The Missing Tool: Online Document Editing

In 2007 I introduced Google Apps for Education at our 2 form entry Primary School. This was continued to be used successfully as the primary communication method until 2009, where we switched to a full learning platform in order to focus on learning tools. You can read about the relative benefits and drawbacks here. Google Apps has particular uses that we have continued to use (forms for pupil/parent/staff feedback, a newsletter in the form of a presentation and spreadsheet documents outlining install software and serial numbers for our technician). We have successfully migrated to the learning platform’s inbuilt calendar and messaging system. These systems, whilst not being quite as intuitive or drag and drop style as their Google equivalent, are well integrated and take less administration than their Google alternatives (July 2009).

Having said all this, there is one huge feature missing from our learning platform that I see as integral to any digitally aware school, the ability to access and EDIT documents securely on the web so that teachers and leaders can access 24/7 (replacing the school’s network). The learning platform does feature uploading and downloading of documents, but not in a way that makes it usable as a complete network replacement.

I originally tried testing this system of working using Google Docs as part of Google Apps in 2008, however it quickly became clear that without folder sharing (therefore having the possibility of sharing multiple documents and permissions already set based on the folder) and the ability to upload other file types (such as PDFs, images, smart notebook files etc) it would not be able to replace the school’s network, and that is not even mentioning the large number of security scare stories on the internet that were (inevitably) circling at the time.

During 2009 I tried out, which allows for document upload of pretty much any file type as well as online document creation. I love the way it integrates with other web systems, such as Zoho, which allows documents uploaded to be edited online. The possibilities seem endless and it’s close to my vision for cloud computing where systems interlink seamlessly as if part of the same system. Unfortunately, for use inside school there were three drawbacks at the time. Firstly, despite several hours on the phone, our LA filter was still blocking elements of Zoho which made editing documents online unusable. Secondly, makes sharing files almost too easy to make it secure for school staff (1 click slightly in the wrong place and your file is shared to anyone who knows the link). One way around this would have been to pay for interlinked business users which would allow for password protected files. Whilst offered us a generous educational discount for 5 business users, I was reluctant to commit to another yearly outgoing on top of Knowledgebox Online and our learning platform, especially as I still felt online document editing should be a key part of any learning platform system.

Later in 2009 I tried out Dropbox as well as several of its competitors (e.g. Sugarsync). I went through the checklist that had previously proved the downfall of Google Docs and Security (check), gets through filter (check), cost effective (check). I was concerned about the ease of deleting things with one shared account, and multiple accounts for each year group or user seemed like lots of admin time and support for the less ICT literate so I purchased the Pack-Rat (unlimited backups). With all the above secured, I put a test in place with 4 users in school for a couple of months. Everything worked brilliantly, suddenly the possibilities became a reality. The next step was whole school rollout, which in the first couple of weeks was as smooth as silk with our entire curriculum network moved online. Even the less ICT literate staff members, whilst initially moaning about the introduction of another ICT system for them to learn, soon saw the benefits. I thought I had finally cracked it. Then the unthinkable occurred. Somehow massive amounts of the files were deleted. I initially thought someone had done this, however the files were from random folders rather than all in the same location. I put everything back using the Pack-Rat and looked into the filtering issue again. Everything seemed fine. The only possibility I felt that was left was that either a combination of our proxy server and/or the fact that we were simultaneously syncing multiple laptops (15) with the same Dropbox account. A few days later unfortunately the same thing occurred and again a few weeks later. On the third occasion I decided to pull the plug. I was left with the option of creating multiple accounts all linked with a shared folder but I wasn’t convinced that the filtering/proxy issues were not part of the problem and one I would not be able to get to the bottom of. I also thought that ordering multiple Pack-Rats / Pro accounts started to become messy and less good value for money.

Over the last few months, since staff’s eyes were open to the online possibilities, our learning platform’s online storage has been used more for sharing templates, systems documents etc. However this is still very hit and miss and it is currently blurring rather than helping communication (some documents put online, some on the network, some both etc). I have been keeping tabs on all the previous systems looked at for online viewing and editing and there having been two significant developments since the start of the process to find this ‘Missing Tool’. Firstly, the filtering system used by our LEA (Lancashire) has changed, offering far more control at school level. Secondly, Google Docs has evolved. It now offers far more sophisticated sharing options (folder sharing, 1 click sharing across the domain, hierarchical folder privileges) and the ability to upload other document types. Coupled with the ability to use https to increase security (and therefore comply with recommended security levels) and the cost effectiveness, I am becoming increasingly confident that my original starting point could very easily become the answer to the online document editing problem. The only practicality standing in the way is that whilst fairly straightforward once you get used to it, Google Docs like most of Google’s products, has a few nuances to get used to in terms of useability for those less ICT literate and complete online docs is a step further into the unknown for some users over Dropbox. The only other concern would be that because we have tried an online system before, there may be significant reservations from key stakeholders.

Finally, I am aware of Microsoft’s live@edu but think that it makes more sense to stick with Google due to the previous positive experience of it by the school.

So I ask the question: Is Google Docs of 2010 the missing tool that should be adopted as a network replacement for our school? I would love to hear anyone’s answer!

Image courtesy of Pixie Led.

Originally published at on July 25, 2010.