Monday, 2 December 2013

Using Google Apps for education

NB: This post is based on an article I wrote for the SSAT Leading Edge magazine last year.

I used Google Apps a fair bit during my MA so when our LEA announced that they were getting rid of our existing e-mail system I was really keen to move to GMail. Pretty quickly it became apparent that Google Apps had much more to offer than a simple e-mail client.

Before the move to Google Apps we had four traditional ICT suites all with network access and a shared area. Students and staff also had access to the e-mail client provided by our county council. The system provided stability but left little room for flexible, innovative teaching.

I wanted a solution that would enable staff and students to work collaboratively and independently with resources available anytime, anywhere.

After researching various solutions including Office 365 and Virtual Machines I settled on Google Apps. Google Apps is the collective name given to a range of free pieces of software created by Google. Below is a short summary of how we’re using just some of these apps.

Google Mail: An excellent e-mail client that is easy to use and reliable. The Gmail app is available on Apple and Android so students and staff can access their e-mails on any device with an internet connection. Because staff are familiar with using e-mail and have to use it everyday it’s an excellent introduction to Google Apps. In addition, once you’re logged on to Google Mail the rest of the tools are just one click away.

Google Drive: Gives each user up to 30GB of space in which to create, edit and share documents. Students and staff can even work on the same document simultaneously. Before we had Google Drive students only had 50MB to store all their work, inevitably this meant they had to delete old work in order to create new documents. Now students can work collaboratively on loads of projects and easily store large video files. As documents are stored online they can be shared online via websites, blogs & Twitter so students can access the learning materials they need whenever they want.

Google Calendar: Lets you create and share events. As well as using the calendar for day-to-day organisation many departments now use Google Calendar to share homeworks with students. You can even attach documents to events so students can access the resources they need to complete the homework. It’s a great alternative to more expensive services like Show My Homework or traditional VLEs.

Google Sites: Lets students and staff create their own websites. Each department now has it’s own google site that is regularly updated by teaching staff rather than once a year by the ICT technician. The sites are used as an alternative to a costly VLE as staff can post links to documents saved in Google Drive.

YouTube: Not really part of the Google Apps suite but as it’s a Google service you can log in and create videos using your Google Apps account. Staff and students use YouTube in conjunction with our Chroma Key to create instructional and revision videos. Great for AFL and Flipped classroom.

Google Chrome: Chrome is Google’s web-browser (much like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer). We initially tried Google Apps without it and the results were disappointing. Now it’s installed access to Google Apps is much smoother. Students can even sign in with their Google Apps account and access their history and bookmarks from home. The ability to customise how Chrome looks has also meant students take more ownership of their online space.

It’s not all been smooth sailing however. Trying to move to Google Apps without using Gmail or Chrome was a disaster, frustrating for staff and students. The migration can be done without them but in the long run it’s easier just to take the plunge. There are also on-going issues with cross platform compatibility. Drive struggles to convert some documents (particularly Powerpoint presentations) to the Google Drive format. This isn't as much of a problem as we thought it might be but it’s worth knowing about. Finally, following the PRISM\Edward Snowdon leak there are growing concerns in the EU about storing data with American companies like Google. Currently there is no problem at all as Google subscribes to the EU-US Safe Harbour Agreement, but it’s an area worth keeping an eye on.

Tips for a successful implementation:
- Get your technicians to sign up for a free account ( ) and experiment with it. If they’re daunted there are plenty of third party vendors who will take care of the set-up and maintenance for you (for a fee).
- Install Google Chrome. It uses the same settings as Internet Explorer so technicians should find it easy to manage.
- Begin with Gmail. It’s easy to use and acts as a great introduction to Google Apps. Once staff are familiar with it it’s a much smaller step to using the other Apps.
- Introduce Google Drive to staff and students. Once students were using Google Drive in their ICT lessons they all but stopped using MS Office and their network areas in other lessons. Some staff took a little longer to catch on but the benefits of not needing to be at your desk to work make it almost irresistible.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Using blogs instead of exercise books

Evidencing teaching and learning has always been an elephant-in-the-room for ICT\Computer Science lessons. I've seen (and tried) loads of techniques over the years but none of them provided the kind of in-depth evidence that I would be happy to show to an Ofsted inspector. 

Here are a few of the techniques I've seen used:

Annotating on electronic copies of students work: 
+ Students can see comments and respond to feedback. 
+ With good folder organisation students can have before and after copies of their work showing how your feedback has enabled them to make more progress.
+ Saves on printing (nice if you're supposed to be an eco-school).
- In most schools I've worked in students have very limited amount of space to store documents (50Mb?!?!). This makes it impossible for students to keep a record of your feedback for more than a couple of weeks.
- Student's can't take work they are proud of home to show their parents.
- Students file organisation is universally pretty useless so the chances that they'll be able to organise all their work and feedback over a term or year is pretty much 0.

Giving students exercise books: 
+ Somewhere to stick tracking sheets and target grades. 
Students can take them home to show parents if they're proud of their work.
+ Giving out books is a nice way to establish classroom routine and is a good job to give a student who struggles to settle down.
+ Easy to flick-and-tick if you just want to show students you have looked over their work.
- Student's work will be electronic most of the time. It should be, how much of most people's work takes place on paper these days?
- Printing work to stick in a book is expensive, takes a long time and is not very green.
- Student's work might want need to be formatted in different ways for printing. Normal view and Formula view in a spreadsheet for example. 
- Giving feedback should be a natural part of the lesson. Having to stop the class for 10 min every lesson (or whenever) wastes time that the students could spend learning.

+ Printing comments and levels on to stickers saves printing out every piece of work.
+ Stickers can be put in planners and referred back to during future lessons.
Students can write comments in their planners under stickers explaining how they will improve their work as a result of the feedback.
- Students can't see the work alongside the feedback and make a link between the two.
- Doesn't provide evidence of correct marking as HOD, SLT link etc can't see the work to which the comments and levels are applied.

VLE\ E-Portfolio:
I've never used a VLE that worked well enough for me to be able to co-ordinate all my KS3 student feedback. That said I hear that things have improved since I last tried to wrestle with one of these so please leave a comment if you've got strong feelings on them!

Not doing KS3 marking:
+ Saves a lot of time you can spend on other GCSE & A-Level marking.
- Students need feedback in order to progress. Otherwise it's not teaching, just students typing in the same room as you.

Why I want to give blogs a go:
+ I already use Google Apps so students can set up a blog using their school account.
+ Students can post presentations, videos, podcasts on their blog from Google Drive. Students currently have 30GB of space on the Google Drive!
+ By getting students to add me as an admin to their blog I can leave in-line comments /SP etc 
+ I can comment on posts made by students and they can respond to my comments creating a real dialogue charting their progress.
+ Students get e-mails when I comment so they know that I've given feedback and are encouraged to respond.
+ Blog posts automatically have a date and title so it's easy to see which post relates to which lesson or homework.
+ Students can't forget to bring their blog in!
+ Students can add work from any device with an internet connection and show their work to parents.
- Creating 600 blogs could be tricky. 
- Students need to set their blogs to private then add me and a class teacher as an admin. Faff.
- Staff need to keep track of their blog links. I imagine my blogger dashboard will be quickly overwhelmed by 600 blogs.

Leave comments on what you think to the idea and I'll post back when I've given it a go.