Google Apps for Education (GAFE) is, in my view, a serious contender to be the solid foundation underpinning any school’s use of technology.
Whilst nothing is ever ‘free’ in education, GAFE comes pretty close from a user perspective. Google bill the product as ‘free Web-based email, calendar & documents for collaborative study anytime, anywhere.’ With unlimited free storage given to each user, it is difficult to argue. They do impose a limit of 5Tb on individual file size. For reference, that’s a 600-hour long video file, so you’ll probably be able to squeeze under that ceiling. Google’s commercial model is based on advertising, but no advertisement or user data collection take place within GAFE, following recent court cases in the US. Google have gone to great and public lengths to reiterate how they don’t snoop on data in GAFE domains. It’s free to education, some would argue, because Google want students to continue to use their services as adults. All technology companies exist to make money; it seems that Google’s model of doing so has yet to reach the stage at which it is accepted without suspicion.
The component to concentrate on, from a learning point of view, is Google Drive which is a user’s online storage, integrated into the Google Calendar and Mail. Drive serves as an excellent example of how cloud-based storage can help the learning process, allowing the user to:
- Access files anytime on any device with an Internet connection;
- Work offline with documents;
- Share files/ documents with others and collaborate in real time;
- Share folders with students and receive and feedback on assignments;
- Allow read-only access on documents and share with students as a resource, with no photocopying;
- Save/ export a document in a variety of formats including those used by MS Office;
- Work with other Google Apps to provide a platform for forms, surveys, projects;
- Save to Google Drive with two taps of an icon or clicks of a mouse;
- Integration directly into many iPad apps;
- Search files in Drive for name or keyword.
The ease with which documents or folders can be shared should be the starting point for anyone looking to implement GAFE. Suddenly a logistical barrier to collaboration is removed and the user can see updates in real time. For example, let’s look at a creative writing project. A document can be set up with a number of writing prompts for a student or group of students. The teacher grants editing access to the students and each student can view any contribution as they construct their piece. The teacher can make comments on progress or suggest changes to the content. Perhaps most importantly, the teacher can view the construction of sentences over time. The creative process is then seen as a work in progress rather than an end product. If a student often pauses mid-sentence in their writing that might lead to pertinent feedback that enhances learning for the student. Therefore witnessing the process of writing is a desirable part of the workflow that was very difficult to manage before collaborative documents.
Each document also has a revision history so the teacher or student can refer to different parts of the process. This revision history also acts as a fail safe against accidentally deleted work. It may (or may not!) interest the reader to know that the Educate 1-to-1 book was written using a collaborative Google Doc, with the five authors working asynchronously, adding comments to each others’ work, having live calls to improve the draft whilst watching the words change on their individual screens.
The collaborative folder in Drive can also work as a class resource sharing area. The teacher simply shares a folder with every member of the class and gives them ‘view only’ access. This means that the teacher can be comfortable that the students can access the resources without fear they might delete them. The students can work on a copied version of the resource but the master will remain secure.
To take this a step further, the folder structure can also act as a workflow solution for a single teacher and a student. A shared editable folder between the teacher and student means content and assignments can be stored and shared with access available at any time. The student simply submits an assignment to the folder and the teacher provides feedback in the form of comments on the Google Doc or annotations as appropriate. Digital annotations can be provided through a third party application such as Notability (iOS app) or Markup (Chrome Extension). The fantastic thing about this workflow is there is no grey area for assignment submission. It can’t be ‘lost’ as editing is time stamped, as is deletion of materials. Students quickly learn that excuses aren’t easily evidenced!
When considering a solution such as GAFE, the implications to shifting to an entirely new platform must be carefully thought through. GAFE offers calendar, email and storage solutions that are integrated and work as an ecosystem rather than an add-on. It’s hard to use GAFE effectively unless you have fully committed to it in its entirety; it’s possible (but a pretty horrible user experience) to keep your Microsoft email/ calendaring system and link it to GAFE. There is a cost implication of the move away from a product such as MS Exchange for email and Office for productivity, mostly seen in the subsequent training required. Data protection and adherence to policy should also be carefully looked at with the knowledge that other Google products allow Google to ‘mine’ for data so they can target advertising. Even though GAFE domains are not included in the list of products, it needs to be flagged up as a potential concern.
However, let’s be clear, a GAFE domain opens up numerous possibilities for teachers and students because it is based on end-user control. Anytime, anywhere access fits the bill as we reference the classroom lesson as but one part of the learning journey. The concept of a ‘closed’ system only serves to place barriers to the user and in this time of ‘ultimate connectivity’ our students require the right solution. That solution is ‘cloud based’ and GAFE is leading the way for schools.