Thursday, 20 March 2014

Google Apps for Education

My school has been using Google Apps for Education (Google Drive, Sites, Gmail etc.) since before I started here 18 months ago, so I felt it was a good time to reflect upon the challenges we have faced when using them. At Nexus, we use Google Apps as a kind of VLE - blending Sites to deliver lesson content and Drive for sharing work and for learners to upload work for teachers. We also felt that Google Apps offers a useful (but not proper) backup solution in our 1:1 school where we knew that the vast majority were not doing so.

From an IT educational perspective, I have background in using and working on a couple of 'VLEs' - Moodle and Sharepoint. Moodle was excellent although a little clunky to set up and I really liked the ability to set tasks, homework etc. and monitor through the system. Sharepoint, as a 'VLE', was horrendous.

First steps

The first decision that was made with Google Apps was that every learner should have a Google site for every subject. This meant that your average year 7 student would have up to 8 different sites. Within weeks we had a huge proliferation of sites. This was not necessarily a good idea, because:

  • Teachers needed to take hours to collect all of these sites together - Google Apps currently has no 'native' way of easily aggregating sites
  • The lack of training and direction in terms of why these should be used meant that most, if not all of the sites were not used.
  • Google sites are quite easy to use, but can take a long time to add content etc. and this can often get in the way of learning without a guided approach to their use.
  • Multi-page sites where evidence was getting buried and hard to find

Back to the drawing board - vision

First steps II

After these first steps we took a long look at what we wanted to achieve with Google apps. Our main reason for using Google apps was to try and improve student-teacher dialogue using electronic media, which the sites solution was not necessarily achieving. Our second reason was to facilitate access to students' digital work - the age old problem of the teacher working with students in the digital age but having issues accessing the work. Finally, we wanted to make better use of Google Apps for teacher and administrative communication.

Student work

Our first step was to install teacher dashboard (+Hapara Media).  This is a third party app that plugs into our Google domain and allows us to aggregate all of our classes so that teachers can see the work of only their assigned classes and students. This allows the teacher to look at work and give feedback easily (without the need for students to share work), send files to whole classes and easily distribute differentiated work. It can also work alongside excellent add-ons such as +Doctopus  and Goobric.

Teacher's classes are listed
All student work is easily located and accessible

With this in place, we also looked at the need for a site for reflective work. Rather than creating a site for each subject, we felt that it would be better to use one site for all subjects and try and limit this to a one page reflective blog for those subjects. This way, we felt that it be a more manageable experience for students and staff. This site is also accessible by teachers through teacher dashboard.  Many departments also decided to use Google sites for their departmental information sites or for their curriculum.

Administration

From a school perspective, Google Apps are a great tool for collaborative creation and storing of school policies that are accessible anywhere. Once we got a handle on the complexity of sharing and permissions and folders in Google Apps, we were finding a huge number of documents being shared which were very hard to locate. Human nature dictates that we store things in regular places so that they can be found easily, for example, placing car keys in a drawer near the door. Google Apps sharing tends to overwhelm people with endless shared documents with different names that need to be searched. This means that important documents can sometimes get lost, for example if the people we shared them with forget the name of them or if we haven't used sensible naming conventions. To address this, we used a combination of Google sites and drive, placing the important documents folders (from a feature introduced into Google sites late in 2012) on a site that staff could go to and easily find the documents they needed.

The power of Google Drive being that we could easily restrict permissions to certain documents (e.g. no access for students, view access for staff and edit access for management).

Intranet with embedded Drive folders

Other considerations

Finally, moving to a cloud based solution for staff and student work meant we needed a reliable back-up. It's very easy to assume that Google will recover all lost files (and some people use it as such). However, this does not cover situations where work is lost, either by intentional or accidental deletion. To cover this, we have moved to a cloud-based back-up solution (for Google Apps) in +Backupify. We have already (in the 12 months of using it) recovered more than 1 piece of essential student work that was otherwise lost. At the moment, I cannot see a time where we will move to an entirely cloud-based solution, but things can change very quickly.

Making it happen

To make sure all of this happens, we have tried to ensure that we have provided ample training for students and staff, so that they can see not only the benefits if using these tools, but also have the skills to use them. To ensure we are doing our best to support these parties, we have a structured training program in place and have also installed an excellent app called +Synergyse  so that staff or students can get interactive training when needed.

Next steps

As Google Apps become more embedded into our culture, it is important to ensure that we maintain training, especially for new staff. Additionally, we are finding increasing numbers of applications that 'plug' into Google so that we don't have issues of learners with multiple sign-ons and so that the files can be stored within Google Drive for ease of access. Some of the more used are apps are +Lucidchart and +GeoGebra. We are looking into a few others, such as +Tinkercad+Quizlet  and a few others I haven't had the chance to try myself yet.