21st-Century Content Development: Google Docs and Cloud-Based Content Development Tools
The rise of email communication in the 1980s and ’90s led to an increase in collaboration on content development projects of all sorts, as it became easy to email word processor files back and forth between collaborators and stakeholders. Emailing files back and forth was certainly cheaper than flying to meet in person and faster than sending hard copies back and forth via snail mail. But this new email-based workflow was not without its challenges, chief of which was keeping track of the numerous file versions generated in the course of multiple rounds of revision. It often became difficult to know for sure whether a particular file was the most recent version. This confusion sometimes led to increasingly baroque and convoluted file-naming conventions in an ad hoc attempt to keep track of an unmanageable number of file versions.
This seemingly more productive email-based workflow was fraught with inefficiencies and pain points, and yet it became the norm for many content development teams, and remains so for some to the present day. The 21st century has, however, brought about another content development revolution in the form of cloud-based tools. In cloud-based content development tools, documents and files are stored not on your local computer, but remotely, in a central repository, where they can be accessed for authoring, editing, or reviewing via the internet.
One of the simplest and most well known cloud-based content development tools is Google Docs, which is essentially a web-based online word processor (along with its spreadsheet sibling, Google Sheets). In fact, this very blog post is being written online in Google Docs right now! In Google Docs, documents are edited within a web browser and stored remotely in Google Drive, Google’s cloud-based file storage service. As changes are made to a document in Google Docs, previous versions of the file are automatically backed up, but there is always one and only one canonical location for the document. This system means it is always clear which file is the most current version and who is in possession of it.
Perhaps the most important feature of Google Docs is the ability for multiple users to access and edit the very same document simultaneously in real time without having to email file attachments back and forth or keep track of multiple file versions. For example, a content author can create a draft of a project (say, a book chapter or an article) in Google Docs. From there, a reviewer can add comments to the very same document, and a copyeditor can edit the same document, all simultaneously from their respective locations via a web browser. Any changes made to the document are instantly visible to anyone who has access to the document in Google Docs.
The experience of using a cloud-based word processing tool like Google Docs will be familiar to anyone who has experience using more traditional word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word. Google Docs has many of the same authoring tools and features, such as tracked changes, text formatting tools, margin and line-spacing settings, and so on. The main difference is that Google Docs is accessed from inside your web browser, with documents stored and accessed online, instead of in a standalone program with files stored on your computer.
One of the mistakes that new users of Google Docs sometimes make is to export and download a separate copy of a Google Docs document for editing in their own word processor programs. Downloading a separate copy of a Google Docs document instead of working online defeats the purpose of using a cloud-based content development tool in the first place (i.e., having one canonical location for the document, the document being accessible by multiple users, not having to keep track of file versions, and so on).
Users of Google Docs (or any other cloud-based content development tool, such as Pages from Apple or Office 365 from Microsoft) should be encouraged to access, edit, review, and comment on the cloud-based documents online, right inside Google Docs, instead of downloading the files or working offline. This can be a mindset shift for authors, editors, and reviewers who are used to an older email- or file-version-based content development workflow. But the benefits of not having to keep track of file versions, and of being able to collaborate simultaneously with other users within the same document, more than make up for the learning curve associated with adopting a cloud-based content development workflow.
With a simplified workflow and fewer file versions to keep track of, using a cloud-based content development workflow can lead to a measurable increase in content development and production efficiency. And the ability for multiple users to access and edit the very same document in real time can lead to an increase in creative collaboration between multiple authors, content creators, editors, reviewers, and other stakeholders, while also increasing transparency and accountability in the content development process, since any user can see the most recent updates to cloud-based documents and files.
If your content development team is still keeping track of file versions or regularly emailing file attachments back and forth, consider switching to cloud-based content development tools and workflow. If you haven’t yet made the mindset shift to working in a cloud-based environment, you may not even realize the pain points you’ve been living with, perhaps for years (or decades!), and to which 21st-century cloud-based content development tools like Google Docs are the answer.
Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.