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.

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