Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Why Google Apps for Education is such a great platform for schools

I have recently blogged on a number of different aspects of Google Apps for Education (GAFE), from using Sites/Drive as a school intranet to Google classroom and Teacher Dashboard. However, as we are now heavily invested in Google as a platform, it is worth discussing some other developments that have been enabled by our use of GAFE.

Where we started

As we started using GAFE, it was clear that we had the opportunity to exploit the power of Google Apps scripts to create our own custom systems. We had already exploited the add-on scripts written by +Andrew Stillman for a number of systems, such as using a combination of #autoCrat and #formMule to create a learning observation system for teacher feedback and development. We also made use of the features of Google sheets (I'll go into some more great uses of Google sheets later) to do some post-processing on the data, so that we could analyse the results of the learning observations. 
1.1 Learning walk form - on submission uses autocrat to send a pdf version of the feedback.


When I started at Nexus as an ICT integrator I started exploring the potential to use scripts to send Google form data into a calendar for a homework system, but found that I was startlingly incompetent and did not have the time. However, we really wanted to exploit the features of Google Apps scripts so we were fortunate enough to employ +Sam Scholefield to work with us to create some exciting new systems...

...Everything begins somewhere

Our initial problem was our homework system, which was effectively a Google spreadsheet embedded onto a Google site. A solution to a transparent system of homework setting that it was, it was rather clunky - staff submitted homework to a form, students then had to filter the resulting sheet by teacher / year group etc. to find homework.

1.2 Our old homework system - a form feeding into a google spreadsheet hosted on a site

Sam's first job was to make a better homework system, which, after a short time familiarising himself with Google apps script, he did. The new system pulled data from +Hapara's Teacher Dashboard (which is in turn taken from our MIS registeration system) so that we had all of our classes, staff and students. This then allowed staff to set homework using a to their classes using drop-downs, text entry fields and start / end date fields. The new system shows our students their "active" homework and also allows them to copy the tasks to their calendar for reminders. It is simplistic, intuitive and works well.
1.3 Our new homework system, combining data pulled from Teacher Dashboard with Google Apps script

Moving on

One of our next big goals as a school was to develop our own middle years program. Our Principal was keen to have a system that allowed us to define our own curriculum using a concept-based approach, which allowed us to map the curriculum by searching through a database of curriculum documents. Through a series of meetings, the content of the curriculum documents was established and trialled, and the next step was to create the system to host all of this. Sam spent a considerable amount of time creating the system. It is again based on GAFE scripts and works like this:

  1. Staff complete a custom Google apps script form for the 'Scope' of a unit of work. The scope contains learning goals, concepts, personal and transferable skills, success criteria etc.
  2. When complete, the form data is 'published'. This copies the data into a Google doc using a pre-set template.
  3. The completed documents are searchable using the custom search facility which allows searching by concepts, subject, title etc.

So, what next...

This post is really focussed on the power of GAFE as a school platform and what it can offer.  With a few tools utilised alongside it, such as Google classroom, you are approaching an excellent, free VLE. However, it is not perfect. You don't have a lot of the features of bought systems that have modules that can be added to allow homework submissions etc. However, with a few minor exceptions, many VLEs are expensive, clunky, outdated and horrifically designed. They are often mis-sold to schools/districts/governments who buy them without having a vision of technology but know they need something to move them on.

Anyway, stepping off my soap-box for a moment, the great thing about GAFE is that by using scripting (free ones, or paid) you can start to customise and build pretty much any kind of systems you want, all sitting on top of a core of a robust, collaborative cloud-based document storage system, which also happens to be free. 

The question is, how can schools gain access to a team of competent coders that also know the machinations of the average mind of a teacher or school administrator? 

In some private international schools, it might be possible to employ a coder (we did have one, but he has now left us...), either in the school or on a project-by-project basis, but this is potentially costly and fraught with issues (but maybe not compared to the cost of an expensive and inflexible corporate VLE). In public schools, the New visions cloud lab in the US is the start of this approach - a collaborative approach to solving the problem of getting customised systems written at a reasonable cost.

I feel that a shared approach like the New visions cloud lab is the best - a small team (maybe of one!) of developers that can be utilised when a school has a problem to solve, or to find ways to save time and teacher workload. However, how I might get together a group of Google-based, like-minded local and/or international schools that could utilise a group like this with Google scripting skills is the next challenge.