I am often asked what software I would suggest for student collaboration on files, such as group projects. Not surprisingly, my go-to systems are Google Drive and Dropbox. Google Drive is ideal for shared document editing, while Dropbox is ideal for transferring files between people. But the distinction between file editing and transfer systems is quickly collapsing as those designed for one purpose are continually incorporating the functionality of the other.
Google invented shared document editing with Drive, which for the first time allowed multiple people to edit the same document in real time. This solved the version-control problem that comes with sending documents around by email attachment. But while most people still think of Drive solely in terms of editing text documents, Google has been broadening the range of file types that Drive can support to include spreadsheets, presentation slides, images, and videos. Now nearly any group document can be hosted on Drive, and it is a good option for hosting videos that you do not want to post to YouTube.
Drive recently added the ability to put a backup folder on your desktop that will automatically save a copy of any document in your account on your machine. This allows you to work on the file on your own computer with your favorite software system, such as Word, while having it automatically backed up to the shared location on Drive. Plus, your file will also be synced with any Drive folder that you have on other computers that you use.
Does this sound familiar? It should, because it mimics Dropbox. Dropbox backs up your files to the cloud as soon as you save or change them on your own computer. This is also a great way to sync your machines, since the file will get copies both to the cloud and any Dropbox folder that you have on other machines that you use. I sync my laptop, desktop, and some of my iPad and cell phone documents this way. I normally work with my laptop and desktop computers running next to one another to give me multiple screens and because some of my software I use is available on one computer but not the other. I can edit videos with Camtasia Studio on my desktop and have the outcomes automatically saved to my laptop as well. I can even watch documents pop between the two computers in real time. This has saved me many headaches when I have needed a file that I made on one computer while using another computer, such as when I travel. The productivity benefits of this system are huge.
Dropbox is also good for transferring documents to others by giving them a link to the cloud-based version of the document or folder. I transfer files and folders that are larger than a gigabyte quite easily using Dropbox.
But now Dropbox has moved even closer to Drive, allowing users to coedit documents in real time via integration with Microsoft Office Online. The layout and functionality of the shared editing system is strikingly similar to Google Drive, so Drive users will find it easy to master. The editing system also allows for shared commenting using an interface that is also nearly identical to Drive's.
So what are the advantages of one system over the other? Both give you a nearly identical amount of storage space for free, and charge the same amount for further storage—$99 per year per terabyte. But there are still some differences to consider when choosing a system for a particular purpose.
While Drive has expanded its range of supported files to include all of the common file types, there are still some esoteric formats that that cannot be used on Drive. Nearly all audio and video development and editing software saves files in a program-specific format before exporting the final version in a universal format, and the program-specific files cannot be loaded into Drive. Plus, documents uploaded to Drive from Word or other software can lose some special formatting. So if students are doing group work with somewhat esoteric file types or very specific formatting, creating a shared Dropbox folder is your best option.
Similarly, though the integration of Dropbox with Office Online makes it an option for shared editing, Drive has hundreds of extensions available to a teacher for things like grading and citations. These are very helpful for monitoring and managing group work. Plus, it is easy for a teacher to create a template for students to use and then share with students in Drive. Being the owner of that file, the teacher will still have complete access to it to monitor content. Finally, Drive integrates with all of Google's other products, which makes it easy to manage groups doing work on various file types.
Drive and Dropbox still have some features that make one better than the other for specific purposes, but if your needs are simple, it is now possible to use either Dropbox or Drive as your all-purpose system for managing documents with students. There are also some other systems that you might consider for different uses:
is a document transfer system similar to Dropbox, but where it excels is in its simple drag-and-drop interface and integration with your email system. When you want to send someone a file, just drag it from its location on your desktop to the Infinit icon, which will open up a list of contacts from your email account. Click a contact, and your email application will open automatically. Then type and send the email, which will contain a link for them to click to receive the file.
Infinit uses a peer-to-peer transfer method, meaning that files are not uploaded to the cloud first as they are with Drive and Dropbox. They go directly from your computer to the other person's computer, which Infinit claims makes it much faster than other systems. You can also password protect the transfer and set an expiration date on it, which provides more security. This means that Infinit might be a good system if you are sending individual students different, large files from your computer.
is an interesting system that allows you to transfer files between machines on the same wireless network. You can move files between your desktop, laptop, iPad, or cell phone on your home network or between students on your institution's wireless network. This is a big help if you want to send a file to all of the students in your class at once during a face-to-face session, and it should work for a live online session if all of the students are using the school's network. Just have everyone download the Sharedrop extension to their browser at the beginning of the course, and when they start their computers in class, all of the students in the course will show up on each other's screen, almost like a radar image. You can send a file to everyone at once, or students can send files to each other's computers.
Annotation Studio (www.annotationstudio.org)
allows groups of students to comment on the same document. While Drive also provides shared commenting, Annotation Studio allows for images and videos. A teacher in an English class can post a passage from Shakespeare and have the students analyze it by posting comments on specific passages and by illustrating concepts with images or videos. This could expand students' thinking about a passage by helping them see connections with other ideas.
) is a shared editing system that supports live group collaboration. Groups of people are given a “pad,” which is essentially a website space on which they can post content. Each person's contribution is highlighted in a different color to make it easy to identify, which is helpful if a teacher wants to make sure that everyone is contributing. The system's simplicity and quick setup could make it preferable to Drive for in class or live online brainstorming activities.
Take advantage of these options to add group collaboration to your courses.