Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Google Apps for Education User Group

Yesterday I attended the 2011 Google Apps for Education User Group at Loughborough University. It was an excellent event, attended by over 100 people from higher education through to the schools sector, and well organised by Martin Hamilton.

This is a run through of some of the highlights for me. I stayed with the strategy strand of the event, though I was disappointed that it meant missing the very interesting looking technical strand. And the amplified nature of the event via Twitter and elsewhere added to the value of the event for me and others.


Iain Fletcher from Google was first up, with a look at Google's roadmap and some features that are easy to miss from current Google products. Google are looking to make people more productive and collaborative, and what he showed will certainly help that to happen. He covered some features that most Google users will be familiar with, including threading of emails and priority inbox. He emphasised the way that the priority inbox engine works out which e-mails are the most important (telling it seemed to be quite an important factor). And at least it now shows the reason for the priority. I might give that another try, having switched it off when it first arrived.

Dragging and dropping emails and file attachments using HTML5 has improved, and the recently added unified search now searches emails and documents in Google Docs.

He showed some nice features in the instant messaging feature (Google Talk), including instant translation in a chat window by inviting translation bots to a group chat. Translate is also available in mail, Docs and Sites, translating sites on the fly in real time.

Video chat now also works outside your own domain, provided your Google Apps administrator has enabled it.

He looked at a few calendar features including the now familiar "Quick add", and also showed the meeting rescheduler which now identifies which meeting attendees are not available at particular times and will offer alternative rooms if needed.

In Google Docs we looked at the new "Doc list" view which was rolled out last week and Iain emphasised that it is now possible to upload any type of document. Version control of non Google documents in the cloud is now possible as well. We saw real time collaboration on documents including on the iPad, and Android devices and looked at the revision history. The quick demo of using MS Word on the iBook was enhanced by the spontaneous offer of a 110Mb download of patches.

Cloud connect is a feature which will allow MS Word users to save to the Google cloud (to be released "soon"), and that will include version control. Although realtime editing won't be possible, synchronous editing will be. Clicking save will update all versions and it offers full version and conflict control.

We saw a few additions to Google sites, including the use of Google moderator for surveys, which I hadn't seen before this event.

Google's 2010 service availability was 99.984% and they now promise no scheduled downtime. They are aiming at 99.99% and on track to deliver that this year.

We saw how it is possible for administrators to manage portable devices, including forcing passwords and encryption, and remote wipe.

I'm not sure that the Chrome video was entirely necessary as we were running short on time, but it was quite amusing.

I'd rather have spent more time hearing about the Chrome OS device which Iain showed us, though I guess there's not much to show with a completely stateless machine. It was the first UK public showing for this device which was, well, very black. It features 2 versions of the operating system so if one gets corrupted you can just use the other one. No anti-virus software is therefore required as it is just a browser in a box. Clearly connectivity needs to be always on. But it looks good and the "switch on to browser" time is under 10 seconds.

He finished with a whistle stop tour of some clever things. He used Google Goggles to take a photo of a Sudoku on his Android phone, which then worked out that the photo was a Sudoku and then solved it.

Google launched 250 features last year, and expect almost double that this year, with the back end being refreshed about every 2 weeks.

In the first strategy session, Niall Sclater, director of learning innovation at the Open University talked about their mass migration to Google Apps. They use Moodle as the heart of their Virtual Learning Environment, with Elluminate dealing with synchronous work eg language teaching at a distance. Google Apps providing the other aspects, such as sharing documents, eportfolios etc.

They chose Google Apps after an evaluation with 122 evaluation criteria including the platform, technical, legal etc. Google had the edge in a number of areas and they liked the Google attitude. Google won and they are now rolling it out while working on the contract. The two main outstanding issues are data protection - information uploaded must be subject to EU legislation, and also unsolicited advertising (not for students, just for alumni), but these are almost resolved.
Their experience with the help desk was interesting - while the help desk was concerned about the potential for calls, they have only had about 150 calls, mostly about privacy, and virtually none about functionality and the user interface.

He talked about e-portfolios, leading with Helen Barrett's eportfolio mashup, in what was to become a recurring theme throughout the day. The main challenge here still is that the assessment side is still not yet clear - how to lock documents for assessment or export them to another system for assessment.

There are some issues over passing group membership data to Google Apps. This is currently held on a central system but the current state of the Google APIs makes this difficult.

Some accessibility issues still remain for Google Apps, particularly in the spreadsheet and with some inconsistency in presentation and compatibility with screen readers. Google are aware of these and working on them.

Finally some references to Moodle and Blackboard integration, with projects such as Moodle Google and BBoogle.

Next up was a session on "developing the business case", with Christine Sexton from the University of Sheffield and Aline Hayes from Sheffield Hallam University. Having heard quite a few objections in the schools sector to challenges over privacy and security with Google Apps I was pleasantly surprised to hear that neither organisation has had any issues. Sheffield University moved all their students to Google Apps 18 months ago and are now moving staff to Mail and Calendar as well. Sheffield Hallam moved quickly too, with the time from the decision to moving across only being 10 weeks. They are not moving staff at this time but will be reviewing that.

The business case for both could be simplistically summarised as "why would we not do this?" Christine said "Why would I run an email service for 25-30,000 students when someone is offering to do it for nothing?" It was also noted that while the price wasn't the reason for moving, it was certainly a bonus.

It was reassuring to hear that both had a clear exit strategy. Not all organisations in the schools sector moving to the cloud have been so clear about that, in my experience.

The last session I'll cover was about the use of Google Apps in schools, from Mark Allen and Zoe Ross.

Mark talked about his use of Google Apps with a rural primary school with 75 pupils. He presented at the Google Teacher Academy last year, and is now doing this as his day job. He summarised it as building a VLE ecosystem using Google Apps.

He talked about the well known challenges of using a learning platform that has effectively been imposed by the local authority. With funding becoming even tighter this issue will become even more challenging. Clearly services need to "just work", and some learning platforms "just don't".

The schools Mark is working with are using a range of tools from Google Apps to Khan Academy, Brainpop, and the Posterous blogging platform. His mantra is "Safe, simple, free".

They are also using the Incerts assessment tool which is fully integrated with Google Docs.

Zoe Ross, a Google Certified Trainer and Teacher, then followed up with looking at Google Apps in secondary schools. A whistle stop tour of various projects focussing on the four areas of "backup, share, engage, collaborate". I couldn't do justice to the presentation from my notes but here are Zoe's slides - they are well worth a look.


There was a lot more content to the day, and you'll be able to find much of it online by searching for #guug11. Thanks again to all those who took part.