Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Google Gears Up as a Digital Equity Strategy

Every once in a while the universe throws you into a situation that challenges you to take a closer look at how well you understand the reality of those you advocate for. As an advocate for digital equity, I pride myself in promoting strategies that help bridge the digital divide. So there was a certain degree of irony to the fact that I have found myself in a situation with no Internet access for the summer.

Living in rural Vermont, where many communities have no high speed Internet access or cell service, I've always been sensitive to the challenges of students and teachers whose only Internet access is dial-up and even more sensitive to those for whom a computer or the monthly fees of having Internet access are cost prohibitive. Yet I was still surprised at the adjustments I needed to make at my new summer place at a campground without Internet access. A friend from my Personal Learning Network recently gasp at the fact that my last Twitter update was 18 days ago, and suggest that I change my username from 'techsavvygirl” to “she formerly known as techsavvygirl”. I'm grateful that he agreed to make an exception to his personal Twitter rule -- “drop followers who fail to update after two days.”

Ah, but alas, the “Internet withdrawal” symptoms made me sit up and take notice of one of Google's newest additions – Google Docs Offline made possible by Google Gears. Google Gears is an open source browser extension that allows you you to view and edit your Google documents offline, without an Internet connection. Well, maybe not 'all' of them. It allows you to view and edit word processing documents and to view (not edit) spreadsheets and presentations offline using Google Docs. Google Gears is now part of my summer 'survival' kit and has earned a place in my list of digital equity strategies.

Since our school has adopted the use of Google documents as a digital equity strategy and implemented Google Apps for your Domain (Educational Projects), many students have been able to continue working on their assignments outside the school day. There is a big equity gap between students who type 80 wpm and those who type 15 wpm when giving kids computer lab time to complete an assignment. Unfortunately the latter, is also usually the student who does not have a computer and high speed access at home. Our students who needed more thinking time or typing time were now able to finish the assignment offsite. Even those without Internet access at home, claimed that Google docs helped them access their schoolwork at the library or a friend's house.

But suddenly some of our teachers were finding themselves in the midst of their own digital divide problem. Students started eagerly sharing their documents with teachers or submitting them electronically using the Share feature of Google Docs. This proved challenging for teachers with only dial-up access available. I wasn't sure I could do more than empathize, until I discovered Google Gears.

Now I show them how to access their Google Docs offline. Clicking on the “Offline” link on Google Docs toolbar will result in a prompt to install Google Gears and give it access to your computer. (Make sure you don't do this on a 'shared” computer.) Then the next time you log into your Google Docs account, check out the "work off line" tab. You will be prompted to allow Google Gears to work with Google Docs off line. The documents will be stored and made available to you on your computer, even when it cannot access the Internet by typing into your browser or by clicking on the desktop shortcut that is downloaded during the installation process.

I not only used Google Gears to work with my Google Docs, but also synced it to work with my Google Reader. Getting ready to spend the weekend without Internet, I did some preliminary research for a project I was working on by adding the sites to my Google Reader, then made sure to sync my computer with Google Gears before I left. For the rest of the weekend, I was able to access information that would not have been available to me otherwise! Even though Google Gears didn't provide me with “full text” or ability to follow hyperlinks, it certainly gave me access to more digital resources than I would have had otherwise.

Although the list of applications that work with Google Gears is fairly short, those of us with limited access now have a new strategy in our digital equity toolbox. And as much as we would like to believe PC World's prediction “that it won't be that long until we're always online.”, we are thankful to those Web 2.0 products that understand that ubiquitous online access is not everyone's reality.