Why every student needs a Google account

Google_student

This post might seem a trifle umm… politically insensitive after recent revelations in the UK about exactly how much corporation tax Google pays (answer – basically none), but I’ve been planning it for a while, and unlike Starbucks (which should be boycotted at all costs, because their coffee sucks) Google is a little harder to avoid, and actually provides a whole slew of incredibly worthwhile, and mostly free, services. One of the first things you should do when you start an undergraduate course at a college/university is sign up for a Google account. Here’s why:

1. Gmail
You’ve probably already got an email address, but if you’re not using Gmail then you need to switch. The interface is brilliantly usable and customisable, and you get a massive 10Gb of storage for all your mail – more than you’ll likely ever need. The most important benefit though, is Gmail’s ability to pull all your current and future email accounts together in one place. Gmail can be set up as a POP3 client (here’s how) meaning it can pull email in from several different accounts and present it all in one inbox. You’ve probably got an account already, you’ll definitely get an account on your university’s servers, and when you leave and either go on to postgraduate study (maybe at a different university) or get a job, you’ll almost certainly get given yet another account. Gmail can centralize everything, and mean that you only have to check one inbox for all your accounts. You can even configure it so that it sends mail through, say, your university account by default, so people you contact see your ‘official’ email address. I’ve currently got five email accounts configured to read through Gmail, and I honestly couldn’t manage without it. Additionally, if you start using Gmail from day one, all your contacts and mail are saved in your Gmail account, and won’t be lost when you complete your course and your university account inevitably gets cancelled/deleted. Another benefit of Gmail is its ease of use with various smartphone platforms. Android (obviously) and iOS devices are designed to sync up with Google accounts pretty much seamlessly.

So, set up a Gmail account, and assume it’ll be your email address for life. Be sensible. Don’t choose a username like sexyluvkitten69@gmail.com, or gangzta4life@gmail.com – choose something you’ll be happy to put on a CV when you leave college, i.e. something that pretty much consists of your name.

2. GDrive/Docs
In one sense, Google Drive is a simple online storage locker for any kinds of files you like, a bit like Dropbox, or any of the other similar services which have proliferated recently. You get 5Gb of free space, and it’s easy to set up file sharing for specific other users, or to make your files available for download to anyone you send a link to. In another sense, it’s a full-featured web-based alternative to Microsoft Office, with the ability to create/edit documents, spreadsheets or presentations online, collaborate on them simultaneously with other users, and download them in a variety of the usual formats. Use it for just backing important things up, or use the full ‘Docs’ features – it’s up to you.

One other incredibly powerful feature of Google docs are the forms tools. These can be used to create online forms – the best way I currently know of to create online questionnaires for research purposes. The data from the questionnaires all gets dumped into a google docs spreadsheet for easy analysis too – very cool. This page has some good tips.

3. Google Scholar
Google Scholar is pretty much my first port-of-call for literature searches these days, and is often the best way of looking up papers quickly and easily. Yes, for in-depth research on a particular topic then you still need to look at more specialised databases, but as a first-pass tool, it’s fantastic. You can use it without being logged in with a Google account, but if you’re a researcher, you can get a Google Scholar profile page – like this: Isaac Newton’s Google Scholar profile page (only an h-index of 33 Isaac? Better get your thumb out of your arse for the REF old boy). This is the best way to keep track of your publications and some simple citation metrics.

4. Google Calendar
Yes, you need to start using a calendar. Google calendar can pull together several calendars together into one, sync seamlessly with your ‘phone, and send you alerts and emails to make sure you never miss a tutorial or lecture again. Or at least, you never miss one because you just forgot about it.

5. Blogger
Blogger is owned by Google, so if you want to start a blog (and it’s something you should definitely think about), all you need to do is go to blogger and hit a few buttons – simples. That’s the easy bit – then you actually have to write something of course…

6. Google Sites
Probably the easiest way to create free websites – as for Blogger above, you can literally create a site with a few clicks. Lots of good free templates that you can use and customise.

7. Google+
Yes, I know you use Facebook, but Google+ is the future. Maybe. The video hangouts are cool, anyway.

8. Other things
Use your Google account to post videos to YouTube, save maps/locations/addresses in Google Maps, find like-minded weirdos who are into the same things as you on Google Groups, read RSS feeds using Google Reader, and oooh… lots of other things.

Honestly, the feature of Gmail should be inducement enough for everyone to sign up for a Google account, the rest is just a bonus. Get to it people – it’s never too late to switch.

TTFN.

***UPDATE***

Following a couple of comments (below, and on Twitter) I feel it necessary to qualify somewhat my effusive recommendation of Google. Use of Google services inevitably involves surrendering personal information and other data to Google, which is a large corporation, and despite these services being free at the point of use, it should always be remembered that the business of corporations is to deliver profits. Locking oneself into a corporate system should be considered carefully, no matter how ‘convenient’ it might be. This article from Gizmodo is worth a read, as is this blog post from a former Google employee.

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About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on December 9, 2012, in Internet, Software, Study Skills, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I couldn’t agree more.

    I’m really glad you highlighted the benefits of GMail. Despite the fact that I use it for this purpose, I have always been cautious about recommending it to students and colleagues as an overarching mail management interface. The reason is that my university isn’t keen on using anything other than their own webmail interface/Outlook alternative, and every now and again maintain the perceived dangers of using GMail with a scare email, e.g.

    >Case Report:
    >A member of our Faculty has recently e-mailed uncorrected proofs of a paper
    >in press to his co-authors. Although this person used University servers and
    >e-mail, one of the recipients of the e-mail had an account with Google´s
    >service Google Mail. Shortly after, and before the proofs had been corrected
    >and sent back to the journal, the authors discovered that their uncorrected
    >proof was freely available via Google´s service Google Scholar. A complaint
    >at Google revealed that Google´s Terms of Use for its Google Mail service
    >include a statement that Google is allowed to scan all e-mail communications
    >including attachments and to potentially use all e-mail content in one or
    >several of their services.

    I have serious doubts about the truth of the story above, but have had no luck when trying to fact-check on snopes. As such, using Gmail to manage all my e-mail accounts remains my little secret (it doesn’t even make it into my Internet Tools for Academics presentation, despite the fact that it is the only one I use every single day of the year).

    • That’s interesting, I’ve never come across scare stories like that – thanks for sharing it. There are certainly more secure ways of conducting your business (whatever that might be) than using free, web-based systems, but as always it’s a compromise between security and convenience, and (having never really suffered from a serious security-related issue) I generally tend to come down on the side of convenience. Maybe that’s naive, but I see little value in paranoia.

      • There is no doubt that the google webmail interface is well designed however I believe that part of a student’s development is to understand the data protection issues inherent in using a third party provider.
        Google does not claim to backup your data, nor are they willing to delete files for you. Their data (and once it’s on their servers, it is their data) is stored in a number of different countries, often in places with lax privacy and data protection laws. Google will not inform you if your data is given to law enforcement or another party that they deem necessary to run their service.
        Therefore, any and all data in Goole servers should be considered insecure and open to use for profit and, potentially, malice.
        Fortunately there are wonderful, free and often more functional alternatives to nearly all google services.
        Some are hosted:
        Email: hushmail
        Search: DuckDuckGo
        Kune is also an interesting project.
        With the increasing simplicity of rolling your own services, this route is also viable for most people and provides the best integration, security and understanding.
        While I don’t recommend it for everyone, it’s certainly an alternative to run your own services which are equivalent or better than google’s in many ways. Some of my favorites are:
        Mail: postfix, dovecot, horde
        Storage: Apache2 and WebDAV
        Automatic backups: rsnapshot and git
        Collaboration: etherpad, kune
        Statistics: rstudio server
        Blogging: habari and statusnet

        Your data is a valuable resource, google services are not free, they use your data for profit and ultimately you are the product. However, service providers need to provide similar levels if integration to viably challenge google’s dominance.
        I’m hoping to package the systems I’ve used over the last few years as a subscription model for students and researchers (no adds, secure and data always in your control) but it’s not quite ready yet.

        For the moment, get an old computer (or install virtualbox) install Debian and enjoy being your own google, exploitation free!

  2. Frank – many thanks for highlighting these issues. You’re absolutely right, of course – handing over so much data and personal information to what is essentially a large corporation (with all that entails, in terms of profit-motive, etc.) requires careful thought and at least a passing familiarity with the potential consequences.

  1. Pingback: Back to school special | Computing for Psychologists

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