The Cloud Academic: Part 2

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 20.41.48In my last post I set myself the challenge of seeing whether I could survive in my job and undertake my daily duties using only online, free, cloud based software programmes. I asked whether this was practical on a day to day basis? and could a busy academic really perform all of the duties expected of them using only free, online web programmes? In this follow up post I examine the available software solutions and decide which I will use before beginning the process of moving my files and data to the cloud…

Once I had evaluated the daily tasks I would need to perform and established the main installed software packages I regularly used, I could begin the process of seeking online, cloud based alternatives. But first I needed to ensure that all of my data was backed up in the cloud to enable me to access it with web based software.

Moving to the cloud.

The first task in this experiment was to move all of my files into a cloud storage system. To be honest I had already done this. I use Dropbox to store all of my files and sync them across devices. When I am teaching, I sign into Dropbox from the classroom PC’s and run my presentations from there too. However Dropbox is not the only solution that can be used for this – there are now many options for cloud storage and synchronisation, such as Sugar Sync, BOX, Apple’s iCloud and Spider Oak to name a few. In addition to these Google Drive and Microsoft Skydrive offer similar file syncing capabilities and in this case appeared more appropriate for what I wanted to achieve as they also provide web based office software.

Office Applications 

There are a number of options now for replacing the standard Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint applications that we all rely on so heavily. I chose three main ones to evaluate – Microsoft Web Apps, Zoho Docs, and Google Drive/Docs. I have focussed predominantly on the Word Processing capabilities of each as I already use the web based Prezi for all of my presentations, and do not use spreadsheets too frequently (thank god).

Microsoft Web Apps

Microsoft offer their own online versions of these applications that is baked in with their Sykdrive web storage. The Office Web apps seem capable enough, they enable the revision and creation of word, excel and powerpoint documents using an interface that will be familiar to Microsoft Office users.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 14.43.05

Office 365 Word Web App

I have to admit that I just could not get on with either Skydrive or the Microsoft Web apps. I found the Sykdrive interface unappealing and a little clumsy to navigate. This possibly comes down to personal preference but I just did not like it. The same is true of the web apps themselves. They just did not really do anything special for me. I found that they persistently encouraged me to open the document in the ‘real’ version of Office, and they did not offer anything over and above the desktop software such as the ability to collaborate on documents. The apps just felt like stripped down versions of the desktop software designed to get you by in a fix, but not for serious daily use.

Zoho Docs

Zoho Docs is another service I have previously experienced that has been around for about 8 years now. The company offers a huge rage of web apps for businesses which include an email client, project management web app, invoice and CRM services, a full Office suite and many more.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 15.12.58

Zoho Writer

The Office suite is actually really powerful and I quite like the interface. However whilst you can link Zoho to Google Drive storage, you have to import any documents you want to work on into the Zoho system. You only get https://drive.google.com of storage free and there is no desktop synchronisation for working offline. You can share documents and collaborate with colleagues on drafts, however they have to also use Zoho which to be honest is not that likely. I can see that Zoho would excel as a full featured business system if you were using the whole system, but as it is the file syncing and collaboration are not quite right for what I need.

Google Docs

The final system I evaluated was Google Docs. I had used Google Docs before – but not for a while and not for any period of time. As with Microsoft Web Apps, Google offer Word, Power Point and Excel functionality. All of these are of baked in with the Google Drive web storage.

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Google Docs

I really like the Google Drive interface and it syncs seamlessly with a lot of other services I used such as Gmail and Google Calendar. With the desktop sync app I can access my files offline as well as create new ones. The features of the web apps are in my opinion at least as good as – if not better – than Microsoft Word , however the real benefit of Google Drive is that I can collaborate with colleagues in real time if need be – no more sending drafts back and forth and having to wait for each person to complete their amendments before making mine.

Overall I like the Google Drive/Docs system the best and so this is what I will be using.

Communication

My institution, like many, relies on Microsoft Exchange for email and other communication. Unfortunately this means that I am unable to use any web based service to read and send email such as GMail, Yahoo mail or even Outlook.com. Luckily however, we have recently been upgraded to Outlook 2010 (yes I know it is 2013), which includes a new exchange webmail interface so I can use this instead of the Outlook desktop program.

OWAscreen

Outlook Web App

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the video conferencing platform of choice for most – Skype – which as yet does not have a web app. I intend to try to coax the students who I supervise via Skype over to Google Hangouts which is available online.

Reference Managers

One piece of software that is essential for academics is a good reference manager. Whilst online based reference manager interfaces are now available from Zotero, Menedley and even Endnote, none of these integrates with any of the above word processor apps. Google Docs does have a citation tool which actually works quite well. It pulls in references from Google Scholar and creates a bibliography for you on the fly. At the moment it only supports APA, Chicago and MLA formats but it is a start. This is probably what I will use for short conference papers and the like as I usually have some idea of the literature I wish to cite, and don’t mind doing a bit of manual formatting. For longer journal articles however, this is a real problem. Quite often I need to reformat a reference list to prepare a paper for resubmission to a different journal (my fault for not getting my work accepted in my journal of choice every time!). This is time consuming to do manually and where my citation manager really helps. The only option I can see would be to insert my citations into Google Docs manually using an identifier (such as curly brackets e.g. {Hope, 2013}) and use the RTF scan in the desktop version of Zotero to format my paper for me. I will perhaps tackle this subject in greater detail in another post.

Ready to go

So I have chosen my system. The Outlook Web App for email, Google Hangouts for video conferencing and Google Drive/Docs for file storage and office applications. It doesn’t escape my attention that I am moving from a Microsoft dominated system to a Google one but hey – thats the way it is…

In the final post of this series, I will reveal how successful this experiment has been (or not) and whether I can in fact get by on a day to day basis using only free, cloud based, web apps…

2 thoughts on “The Cloud Academic: Part 2

  1. Hi Alex,

    I share your troubles in moving to the cloud entirely. One thing that I found it helps (in my case nonetheless) is using the OpenOffice.org2GoogleDocs Extension for LibreOffice. It allows me to work both online and offline. It will upload your files to Drive, Zoho and WebDav and in the case of Drive (I did not experience the others) it also gives you the option to convert&update the cloud stored files. I did not try to integrate Zotero into this workflow yet, however I believe the hack you suggested will work, however once you upload the file with conversion you will lose the Zotero fields in terms of interactivity.

    Have a good day!
    Alex

    • Thanks for the comment Alex. I have come up with a similar method for working online/offline – I will explain in the next post. Finding the experiment interesting but a little frustrating!

      Alex

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