Reflections on Use of Google Apps Education Edition

In February 2007 I began to introduced Google Apps Education Edition. Until July 2009 it became the Primary method of communication in school. This blog is designed to give a fair reflection on the assets and pitfalls to the use of this system in a Primary School setting.

Methodology: The focus for the introduction of Google Apps was to improve staff communication throughout the 2 form entry school by giving staff access to the best tools available.

Initial Setup: Creating the account was a bit fiddly, messing around with dns setting/ redirecting etc but as we already had a cheap hosting account it was relatively straight forward. Initial account setup was fairly quick, simply creating an account automatically created an email account and access to the full suite of tools.

The initial tool used was email. This had not been introduced in school before outside the office staff and was chosen to get staff enthusiastic and using the system. In order to support this I installed ‘Sohails Gmail Notifier‘ on each teacher laptop so that they would be informed instantly of any new email ala Outlook rather than have to check their emails each time they wanted to see if they had any messages. This was a rather lengthy process of installing service packs etc but certainly eased the introduction for staff. Initially some teachers still sent messages through pigeon holes but over approximately 3 months this type of communication stopped and email became more integrated into daily practice.

Calendar: Whilst this process was underway, the reason for choosing Google Apps was introduced… The calendar system. The simple user interface and overlapping calendars makes it a great system for education. Setup however was not so straightforward. In fact I would say it was a pain. Individually setting up every individual on each calendar introduced was time consuming, and this had to be done with any new member of staff. I could have asked staff to go through this process themselves but this would have switched them off from using it. Even after all this, some staff still complained of not having one of the calendars available to them. However, in general once setup the calendar system was the shining glory of Google Apps. Having a separate calendar for staff and a whole school calendar, live to the world made sharing events exceedingly effective. The process of embedding the calendars really picked up pace after removing the staff room whiteboard. Until that point messages and calendar dates were still placed on the board by several staff, leading to confusion about where to check for information. Once this was removed there was only one place to look. In Google Apps. Although this naturally brought some opposition after a couple of weeks it completely died away and at this point email and shared calendars were at the point of being fully embedded into daily practice.

Sites: Towards the point where I could see the email and calendars becoming routine, I introduced 2 ‘Sites’. A public site to be used as the school’s website and a private site for staff to share good practice and access certain resources at home. By removing the previous school website which I had created and maintained, it allowed for more dynamic content, created and maintained by all staff. Parental feedback was extremely positive, however the system didn’t go as far as they wanted. The staff website was less successful. Staff were confused by what was available online as opposed to the school’s network. Rather than giving staff flexibility and additional resources, it was seen as overload. This changed slightly as time progressed as I introduced several google forms, e.g. for staff feedback, technician tasks form etc. The skills based curriculum the school follows was available through the staff site and ICT and Science assessments were available online to complete and analyse.

Overall as a communications tool the systems introduced were extremely effective. To aid in staff being able to navigate around the different elements of google apps I created a html page with visual links to each of the main elements.

Learning Platform: A few months after introducing Apps, I looked in earnest at which learning platform we should deploy. I had previously introduced think.com which learners loved but was difficult to focus staff and learners on using it for learning rather than just for fun. I wanted to introduce a learner focused set of tools that would be able to sit alongside Google Apps. I chose a platform designed from the bottom up for learners, DB Primary. The philosophy was that if a learning platform was going to be introduced, learners of all ages should be able to access and gain from the system, not just upper KS2. Whilst evaluating DB Primary is beyond the scope of this blog, it is worth mentioning the platform has some excellent Early Years / KS1 tools that some of the ‘big boy’ Learning Platforms would do well to introduce. However with hindsight, by introducing a second system (whatever was chosen) I made an error in strategy. 12 months on staff used the platform for certain things but because it was not integrated with the tools they used day in day out, it was not having the impact that I felt it could have. At this point there were other issues to consider such as filtering (e.g. presentations element of docs was being filtered despite multiple discussions with the county — this had been introduced as the school’s multimedia newsletter) and having to manually look after both Google Apps and the learning platform. It was time for a decision. Continue and try to slowly embed the learning platform or take what has been learnt so far by both staff and pupils and integrate this into a new, complete VLE. There are lots of fantastic free web apps out there now that in a small school a secondary school or a school heavily focusing on ICT you could go with google apps, edmodo, animoto etc but I wanted every child to benefit and in the experiences I have had, including attending Moodle training, visiting other schools, that kind of setup works with 1 or 2 teachers rather than a whole school. To create whole school impact and a change in pedagogy, after consultation with all stakeholders, it was decided to change to a full VLE.

For schools thinking of going down the Google Apps Educational Edition route, coupled with other tools or a learning platform, there is no reason it could not provide a complete solution. This was vindicated when we received the ICT Mark in July 2009. I just want to take things further, to make a deeper whole school impact in the way teaching and learning occurs.

There is nothing stopping individual teachers from exploring free resources on top of the VLE, for example as part of our Mario Kart Theme evaluation I used wallwisher as well as a chat room provided through the chosen VLE (Studywiz). The VLE just gives staff a focus, pupils easy access to a range of tools and parents access to their child’s learning.

I would be really interested to hear what others think!


Originally published at primarypete.net on October 11, 2009.