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Google Apps for collaboration

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The core Google Apps

Integrated within Google Workspace are a range of collaborative Google Apps:

The main three Google Apps, Docs, Sheets, and Slides, are obviously analogous to the main three Microsoft Office tools (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), and they share many features with their Office equivalents. Office files can be edited in their equivalent Google Apps, and Google files can be saved in the associated Office format, so there's a degree of interoperability too. As a generalisation, the Google versions lack some of the more advanced features of the Office applications, but they also have a number of features that Office lacks, particularly in terms of facilitating collaboration.

Collaborating in Docs, Sheets or Slides

There's loads of collaborative features in Google Docs, Sheets and Slides.

The most obvious is that you can simultaneously edit (none of that Read Only Copy stuff you get with Office when someone else is in a file).

You can also comment on sections of a document, or suggest changes.

Furthermore, if more than one person is in a document, a chat icon appears to the right of their icons in the top right of the screen, letting you chat with anyone else who's currently there.

Collaborating in a Google Doc. Chat; Comment; Suggest.

Managing collaboration in the Google Workspace

Here's a few things to consider when collaborating on Google Apps documents and other files in Google Drive:

Ownership

Every file and folder in the My Drive section of Google Drive must have one owner (and this owner cannot be a Google Group). The person who created the file or folder will initially be the owner. Ownership can be given away by the owner, but not taken by anyone else - the onus is on the owner to transfer ownership. The owner can also decide whether to restrict the ability of others with edit permission from being able to change sharing attributes.

Drive does not use the term delete but instead chooses remove. If you own a file/folder, remove will move the items to your bin. If you are not the owner it will simply remove it from your Drive view (but if it's in a shared folder, it will disappear for others too!).

When an account is suspended (for instance, when you leave the University), all resources owned by that user will cease to be available, irrespective of location, and so it is essential that ownership of shared documents is transferred to an appropriate individual when someone leaves.

Sharing

You can delegate access to the files you create in or upload to Drive.

When you share a file/folder, you first have the choice of leaving it visible only to the defined list (default) or making it more generally available. You can also set the permission level in each case.

Visibility options

  • Share with people and groups (default) - The document is only accessible to those users or Google Groups specified in the share settings. You can customise the permission level for each individual or Group you give access to;
  • Link sharing: University of York (standard option) - Anyone signed in with a york.ac.uk account and in possession of a link to the document can access it;
  • Link sharing: University of York (advanced option) - Anyone signed in with a york.ac.uk account can access it and find it when searching in Google Drive;
  • Link sharing: Anyone with the link - Those who have the link to it can access it, regardless of whether they're at York - no Google account is needed to view.

Permission options

  • View - Can see it but not make any changes. By default, copying and printing are possible, but this can be disabled on a file-by-file basis
  • Comment - Can see it, add comments and ‘make suggestions’ in text documents (similar to ‘Track Changes’); can't change content permanently
  • Edit - Can make any changes to content and comments. By default can also add/remove sharing and change visibility, but the owner can remove this on a file-by-file basis

Permissions can be set to expire after a period of time - either after several days or on a specified date.

Moving files and folders

You can right-click on a file or folder in Drive and choose Move to open the Move dialog box. Multiple items can be selected using the CTRL key. Alternatively, you can drag items about the place.

Adding shortcuts

Just like with Windows, you can add a shortcut to a file or folder in a separate location. To create a shortcut, right-click select a file or folder and choose Add a shortcut to Drive, then navigate to where you want the shortcut to sit. The file itself will not inherit any permissions associated with the folder you put it in, but the shortcut link will be visible to anyone who has access to that folder (regardless of whether or not they have access to the file at the end of it).

If a file has been shared with you, you can use the same method to effectively add it to your own My Drive. You can even organise it within your own folder structure, safe in the knowledge that you won't break anything for anyone!

Folder management

Private folders and shared folders

There are effectively two types of folders in Google Drive:

  •   Private folders – allow you to organise your own My Drive
  •   Shared folders – allow you to create shared storage areas

As soon as you give access to a folder, it will get a little head symbol on it to show that it is no-longer private.

Inheritance

When you assign sharing permissions to a folder, all documents created in or moved into that folder will inherit those permissions.

Inherited permissions can be modified for specific files, to over-ride the inherited permissions. For instance, access might be removed or added on a particular file. File permissions trump folder permissions.

A Venn diagram: The left circle represents the folder permissions, and contains a pink triangle and a blue square. The right circle represents the file permissions, and contains an orange circle and a crossed-out blue square. The intersection contains a pink triangle and an orange circle.

In the example above, a folder (left) is shared with the pink triangle and the blue square. A document in that folder (right) has its sharing permissions adapted so that it is not shared with the blue square but it is shared with the orange circle. As a consequence, the document is shared with the pink triangle and the orange circle, but not with the blue square.

If a file is moved out of a shared folder, it retains any permissions set at a file level but loses any permissions set at a folder level. Predicting the outcome of moving files and folders is not always easy: you'll need to look closely at the file permissions to see what might happen.

If we were to move the file from our previous example out of its folder, the pink triangle would lose access and only the orange circle would be able to see it. Depending on where we put the file, it might inherit some new permissions there.

Remember, if you're worried about moving files, you can always add a shortcut instead: the file itself will not inherit any permissions associated with the folder you put it in, but the shortcut link will be visible to anyone who has access to that folder (regardless of whether or not they have access to the file at the end of it).

General points

  • If you have edit permissions in a shared folder, any rearranging you do will affect other people too - so be careful;
  • Read the messages on dialogue boxes - these tell you what is happening;
  • If a folder is shared with you, add a shortcut to your Drive for easy access;
  • Re-check sharing and permissions after any rearrangement.

Always remember: Only the owner can delete (remove to bin) a document or folder.

Send vs Share

Working collaboratively at a distance is complicated. Fortunately we can now create documents that multiple people can access at the same time — and even edit at the same time! This has the power to transform the way we work — if only we could stop the bad habits we've been develping for centuries...

The mail 'send' model

An ancient map has the Castle of Earl Siward at one side and the Castle of Lord James at the other. Between are two paths. One crosses a swamp; the other travels through mysterious woods; both are beset by geese and a curious avocado spiral of death.

Earl Siward wishes to negotiate a Peace Charter with his rival Lord James, but both live at opposite sides of a perilous swamp. So Siward writes his terms on a piece or parchment, and entrusts it to his best messenger: a little urchin boy called Scritch.

Scritch sets off from Castle Siward, and carefully descends the treacherous path that spirals around a curious avocado-shaped monolith. Local custom states that this strange landmark is a place of dark magick, and travellers are warned to pass by this spot as quickly as possible lest they be bewitched. So Scritch wastes no time and is soon at a fork in the road. There are two roads to Lord James' Castle: one through mysterious haunted woods, and the other through an unpredictable swamp. It's been relatively dry, so Scritch risks the swamp. The stepping-stones are slippery but Scritch treads carefully and is soon at the other side. He is almost upon Lord James's castle when he is beset by horrifying geese. Fortunately, Scritch brought a sandwich with him and is able to distract the geese and buy his route through. He reaches the castle, knocks on the door, and delivers his Earl's message.

Lord James reads carefully. He thinks a while, and then scribbles out some of Earl Siward's draft Charter, adding some notes in the margin and several new paragraphs on the other side of the parchment. He passes the newly revised Charter to Scritch to deliver back to his master. Scritch sets off again on the journey home. The geese are still there, but now it's starting to rain so they scatter. However, the rain will make the swamp crossing dangerous, and although the sun is starting to set, Scritch has no choice but to take the other road through the haunted wood. Keen to make it through as quickly as possible, Scritch breaks into a jog, but the wood is overgrown and Scritch trips on a bramble, grazing his knee. He dusts himself off and carries on, singing a song to himself to keep his thoughts from fleshing out the eerie noises of the dark and mysterious woods. Sore, tired, and terrified, Scritch finally reaches the junction again, and heads back up the spiral track to Siward's Castle.

This is the way we've written to each other for centuries. Sure, some details have changed: Scritch was replaced by the Post Office; we built a bridge over the swamp and cleared a better path through the woods; but the geese are still there and so is the distance. Technology has reduced the time it takes, but the principle has generally remained the same.

The email 'send' model

Siward's PC is joined to the email server by a wire. The email server is joined to James's PC by a wire. All three PCs have three versions of the same file on their hard drive.

When email came along, we pretty-much carried on doing what we'd always been doing. Only we swapped Scritch for a mail server that would serve as our Post Office.

But one thing was subtly different: rather than the same piece of parchment travelling around in the possession of the loyal Scritch, we're making copy after copy:

  1. The original file on Siward's computer is attached to the email;
  2. A copy of the email and its attachment are written to the server;
  3. James downloads his own copy of the email and its attachment — there are now at least three copies of the same file (perhaps more if Siward's email client made a copy of the original file for the attachment, or if James made a working copy of the downloaded attachment);
  4. James makes a "version 2" copy of the file containing his revisions, and attaches it to an email reply;
  5. A copy is written to the server;
  6. Siward downloads the reply and its "version 2" attachment — there are now at least six copies knocking about;
  7. Siward further revises the document to "version 3", attaches it, and sends;
  8. The server gets yet another copy;
  9. James downloads "version 3" — and now there are at least nine copies of what is essentially the same document.

Three computers, each with at least three copies of the file... and we've only just begun our collaboration. What's more, this is only two people collaborating on a file. Imagine attaching an agenda for a meeting and then sending that out to the ten people who are due to attend. That's at least 12 copies from a single email. And then you notice an error in the agenda and send out a corrected version — 24 copies...

And all of this is taking up more and more storage space and burning more and more electricity.

There are other complications with this model too — it's a very turn-based approach: Siward and James can't work on the document at the same time because then there would be conflicts to resolve between the two different versions. And even in a turn-based approach, there's the risk that you accidentally edit an older version and mess everything up.

If only there were another way...

The 'share' model

There's a shared document in the Google Drive cloud. Two computers are accessing it

Siward and James both have access to some cloud storage. Cloud storage is basically just a shared hard drive, albeit at the end of a very long wire! We've had shared network drives for decades, of course; they're older than email is. But the problem always used to be that only one person at a time could access a document and make changes to it; the other person would be locked out because real-time collaboration was too much for the computer to cope with.

But now we have collaborative documents like Google Docs: documents multiple people can access at the same time; documents multiple people can even edit at the same time.

So now Siward and James can have a single document in the cloud, and both of them can open it and make changes to it simultaneously. There's no longer nine versions of something; there's just the one.

It also means that if you're emailing out something like an agenda for a meeting, rather than attaching the document (which then becomes multiple copies of that document) you can just link to a single file in the cloud which everyone can access. And if something on that agenda changes, it changes for everyone; there's no need to send it out again!

We are living in the future and it is a magical place!

Example scenarios

Example scenarios

I create a document and want to share it for editing with one or two other people

  • Create a new document on your Drive with default visibility (Specific people)
  • Add the people to the list, giving them Edit permissions
  • Encourage them to use Comments, Suggestions and Chat to discuss updates
  • Use History to revert changes if you change your mind

A new project I am leading is starting and we will be working as a project team with several shared documents

  • First create a Google Group for the team
  • Create a project folder on your Drive and share it with the Group
  • Create sub-folders within this project folder as necessary - they automatically inherit the share permissions
  • Get each team member to add the project folder to their Drive (essential for easy management)
  • Make sure the team get the habit of creating new documents inside the project folder (or move inside) - they will automatically inherit share permissions

Some of the documents in the project need to be shared more widely for view/comment

  • Share documents (or a sub-folder) with View or Comment permissions with other specified users or groups

All the documents in one sub-folder need to be shared with another team for editing

  • Add the second team's Google Group to the share permissions, but just for the sub-folder
  • In this scenario full Edit permissions would allow them to move documents out of the folder - make sure they know what they're doing

An existing Word document needs to be collaboratively updated by the project team; the finished document needs to be in Word format

  • Upload the Word document into the shared folder structure, choosing to convert to a Google document
  • The team can now edit as normal, use comments, suggestions and chat
  • When editing is complete, download it as a Word document. You will need to do a final tidy up and reformatting of the Word document

Collaboration case study (select to expand)

Let's get IT together: digital tools for collaboration

The Google Workspace applications enable you to work collaborative on documents, slides and sheets. This introduction provides an overview of some of the Google applications on offer that you can use for group work, such as writing your final report or presentation, organising meetings and sharing your findings. Make your group projects more efficient by tapping into the functionally offered using Google apps for collaboration.

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