The Right Tool for the Right Job

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day when she remarked that she finally “got the whole cloud computing thing” after having explored collaboration via Google Docs with most of her classes in 2010. She also observed that many of her students regardless of whether or not they were asked to use Google Docs were using it as the go-to word processor of choice, suggesting that I’d be happy about that given the huge press I had given this technology last year.

All of this got me thinking about whether it is indeed a good thing that students start to shift away from device-specific computing towards fully-enabled cloud computing. Specifically:
1. is the cloud “ready” – are there still substantial limitations to overcome?
2. is a “dependence” on Google Apps really any better or worse than a dependence on Word or Excel? and
3. to what extent are traditional “office” application competencies still important for kids when they leave school and to what extent does cloud computing genuinely facilitate the development of these?

I think the above questions are still largely unanswerable, given that software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications are increasing in sophistication and functionality on a daily basis. Comparing Google Docs to MS Word is still a process of comparing apples with pears because while both applications look similar, they function quite differently. Users of Google Docs accept the limited features of the application as a trade-off for the collaborative and web publishing potential as well as the accessibility of documents across devices and platforms. In the case of my colleague’s students, they were able to see that for their uses, less features were ok – a judgement call that they can make because of their understanding of the different technologies.

So, am I indeed happier if students default to Docs instead of Word? Maybe for the time being I am – given that there is still so much more to be understood about the affordances of the former while the latter seems like more or less familiar ground to most (for the time being). That said, I’m ultimately a true advocate for “the right tool for the right job,” and typically alternate between four main word processors in my own computing:

1. Open Office is my netbook’s usual office suite, where I’ll draft blog posts and reflections on the fly while traveling;
2. Pages is a clear winner for situations when I need to manipulate objects (images, diagrams etc.) within the document, for instance when the document is in fact a flyer, invitation, etc. Although this is possible on other word processors, Pages makes it very slick and easy with some darned good-looking templates to boot;
3. Word is the stalwart format for compatibility across Mac and PC platforms (as well as being easily opened and saved within all of the word processors listed here). Even if I don’t use Word to type the document, I’ll always save in this format as soon as I know that I need to pass the file onto a colleague; and of course
4. Google Docs, the application that I “promote” the most, because of its zero cost to the end user, portability across devices and platforms, the ease with which a document can be published to the web and, most importantly, the capacity for real-time collaboration. Since I feel that web publication and collaborative writing are two vastly untapped resources in education, I think that there’s still much more promotion necessary, even if I do end up looking like a Google poster child (disclosure: although I’ve already been accused several times of being on Apple’s payroll and – though it would be nice if I were – I am yet to receive any income from either Apple or Google – or Microsoft for that matter!).

In the end, the trick is about knowing what the best technology for the job at hand is and making the right choice – this is what we need to teach our kids if they’re going to thrive in the new decade. In order for this to happen, students need to try out a range of technologies (which just may involve, although will not be limited to, using four Word processors). Knowing each technology back to front is not important, but understanding the functionality – as well as the limitations – is. Further to this, when our kids can confidently use a wide range of software – both proprietary and open source – we send a powerful message to the big players: they need to compete and innovate for us, not the other way around.

So Apple, Microsoft and Google, if you’re listening – we don’t depend on any one of you any more. You depend on us, so keep things innovative, open and accessible!

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About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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