OEB 15 – What does it take to scale adoption of technology at your school?

OEB15

Last December, I presented at OEB in Berlin. It was a crazy time of the year – flat out at work and too busy on my return to post anything meaningful about it. Then when I did have time, the lead up to Christmas saw me preparing frantically for that and focused on family activities. Holidays saw me do something I hadn’t done in the longest time. Down tools and rest.

I needed it. Last year was time of great change for me. New school, new routines, new challenges. New, but similar to to what I had worked on for nearly three years at Toorak College in my position as Director of ICT and eLearning. What I presented at OEB is outlined below in the abstract I wrote for the conference proceedings and is a summation of that experience.

At its essence is what I think is the need to upskill the technology skills of everyone in your school, not just the early adopters, the willing few. If you hold a position of responsibility in the eLearning space, there’s a need to build the capacity of the many, not just the few. To do this takes strong resolve and a need to work strategically. In my view, you need to identify the platforms that will  best suit the educational outcomes your school is trying to achieve and you need a focused approach to implement effectively, supporting your staff through the process and building a sense of community around the professional learning required to bring people with you.

I’m fully enmeshed in this challenge once again. I’m now working across a multi campus school and rolling out the curriculum component of another LMS. This time, SEQTA. The challenge is bigger with a staff four times the size of my previous school, but the premise is the same – build teacher capacity at scale. I have a good team around me – let’s see if we can pull it off. 🙂

In the meantime, read the abstract. My blueprint.

What does it take to scale adoption of technology in your school?

In 2013 I was appointed to the position of Director of ICT and eLearning at Toorak College in Melbourne, Australia. Toorak College was a 1:1 Laptop school where pockets of innovation were occurring with use of technology, but many staff were using computers at what Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model would describe as substitution level. Use of Microsoft word processing tools were mainstream and a Learning Management System running off Sharepoint was used but wasn’t fulfilling the purpose of being the common place for delivery of classroom content.

Prior to gaining this position I had read Michael Fullan’s book, ‘Stratosphere’. Within it he identified four criteria for technology and pedagogy to maximise learning.

“It must be irresistibly engaging; elegantly efficient (challenging but easy to use); technologically ubiquitous; and steeped in real-life problem solving.” (Fullan, Stratosphere)

This formed the criteria for my approach to the introduction of new platforms to aid in building capacity with new learning technology tools at a level of scale for both teachers and students within the school.

Toorak College had identified new strategic goals that included the following:

One school – greater communication across a Junior and Senior campus and a unified approach

Personalised Learning

Quality Teaching and Learning.

To help meet the achievement of these strategic goals, 2013 saw the introduction of a new Learning Management System (a product called Schoolbox). This platform enabled teachers to create class pages where they were encouraged to explain what was happening in class each week (or lesson) and to populate this page with the resources students would need to undertake learning tasks. Homework needed to be posted and assessment task due dates needed to be visible. It was an expectation that every teacher use this platform to enable students to have a ‘go to’ point to know what was happening within the school and to keep abreast of what they needed for their classes. The developers of the system responded to critique we levelled at their product concerning the fact that the forums didn’t provide threaded comment trails and there was little opportunity for students to add content and co-create curriculum. They developed a page component called ‘Social Stream’ that enabled students to post comments and upload files and web content. This addition vastly improved the system and saw teachers encouraging their students to pose questions and add resources that could enrich the curriculum. This enabled two way communication and collaboration rather than just a one way teacher directed approach to curriculum delivery.

During 2013, investigation into Google Apps for Education began. Decisions to move staff and students in Cloud Computing (SAAS) solutions are complex and require thoughtful planning and consideration. Google Apps for Education was considered for the following reasons:

  • the collaborative nature of the docs – the way students can work together and co-create
  • the visibility of works in progress when shared with teachers
  • the ability to provide feedback and formative assessment easily at point of need, when students are in the process of writing
  • the cloud storage provided to users – unlimited storage for each user
  • providing staff with a cloud storage option that sits within a school domain, instead of staff opening their own cloud storage accounts eg: Dropbox, and sharing school documents outside of a school domain

Extensive investigation into Google’s security measures and the SLA (service level agreement) offered to schools was entered into, with the reference point for this investigation being the Australian Signals Directorate’s (Defence Force) Cloud Computing considerations. This process is documented in a blog post called, ‘Moving to the Cloud? What should you consider? Coupled with this was investigation into Hapara Teacher Dashboard. Hapara is a third party application used with Google Apps for Education. It provides an instructional management layer for teachers. Teachers access their dashboard and are given a snapshot view of student activity across Docs, Slides, Sheets, and Sites. Any time a student uploads a file to a folder that is visible in the teacher’s dashboard view, that document is instantly writable by the teacher. This enables teachers to access student documents easily and they can provide formative assessment on work in progress. When a teacher leaves a comment on a document, the student receives email notification. If the student replies, the teacher is sent an email. This enables a quick feedback loop for students.

A report tabled to the School Executive led to agreement that Google Apps for Education combined with the management layer of Hapara Teacher Dashboard was an appropriate platform that had the potential to improve the technology capacity of teachers and students and develop a collaborative culture that would help meet the school’s strategic goals.

2014 saw the introduction of Google Apps for Education and Hapara Teacher Dashboard across Toorak College. Chromebooks and Nexus 7 devices were introduced in the Junior School as part of this move. These were huge undertakings requiring staff buy in for success. Professional development opportunities and support in the LMS online environment were offered to build teacher capacity. The College wide move to Gmail as part of this initiative was instrumental in seeing adoption and understanding of Google Drive. Staff members’ need to understand the new mail interface spawned opportunities to discuss mail’s integration with Google Drive. This led to strong adoption of the platform, reinforced by the leadership team’s use of Google Docs as a means for sharing of key information and for collaboration for meeting notes.

Feedback about Google Drive and Hapara Teacher Dashboard from staff and students can be seen below:

Staff feedback:

“Hapara has changed my life in the classroom immensely. I love it”


“It works really well for individual or group tasks. In group tasks I can see if all students are doing an equal share of the work”.

“Google Docs works best for my teaching style, it has changed my work load for the better”.

Student feedback:

“I love the quick feedback”

“I love the accessibility and the accountability”

“I like that I can easily back up my work”

“Google Apps works well for school, because it allows me to have my work constantly backed up. It can be used offline, so the use of internet browsers doesn’t restrict my ability to work. It is easy to organise my work with and has all the capabilities of programs on my computer, but with the ease of mind of constantly backed up work and the ability to work from my phone or another computer”

2015 saw consolidation at school level – no new platforms to introduce, but a focus on how to best use ICT to personalise learning experiences for students. The LMS was fully integrated into school life and all teachers had a presence and the skills to create class pages. The focus for staff development was in seeing full integration of Google Apps for Education and Hapara Teacher Dashboard into everyone’s practice. Continued professional development sessions were offered and analysis of platform use enabled identification of staff members with little presence. This led to focused professional development opportunities.

The NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition describes “Scaling Teaching Innovations” as a “Wicked Challenge: Those that are complex to even define, much less address”. Having a coherent strategy around technology platforms to utilise in a school or district system goes some way to meeting the challenge of scaling teaching innovations. When teachers are provided with the tools that allow for collaborative practice, quick and easy insight into student work in progress, ease of providing formative assessment, tools that allow students to become creators of content and the ability for group work to be managed effectively, there lies the potential for teachers to have opportunities to rethink their pedagogical practices. When everyone is utilising common tools, you are speaking the same language and can support one another in gaining a deeper understanding of the tool’s potential to facilitate richer learning experiences and become a normalised part of the teaching and learning process.

References:

(2014). Cloud Computing Security Considerations: ASD Australian … Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.asd.gov.au/publications/protect/cloud_computing_security_considerations.htm.

Luca, J. (2014). Moving to the Cloud? What should you consider? | Lucacept … Retrieved November 1, 2015, from https://jennyluca.com/2014/04/03/moving-to-the-cloud-what-should-you-consider/.

Fullan, M. (2012). Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.amazon.com/Stratosphere-Integrating-Technology-Pedagogy-Knowledge/dp/0132483149.

(2015). NMC Horizon Report > 2015 K-12 Edition | The New Media … Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.nmc.org/publication/nmc-horizon-report-2015-k-12-edition/.

Puentedura, R. (2012). The SAMR model: Background and exemplars. Retrieved June, 24, 2013.

(2011). Schoolbox Learning Management System (LMS) & School … Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://schoolbox.com.au/.

 

Why I’m not suffering from ‘Technostress’

I was reading an article in  TechnologyEd (part of Australian Teacher magazine) about ‘Technostress’.

Screenshot 2015-03-09 09.08.13

Here is the workflow of my Year 9 lesson on Friday (note: we are a 1:1 laptop school).

Prior to class updated class page on LMS (Learning Management System) to let students know what was happening for the class. Loaded a YouTube link in the collaborative space (social stream) on the class page to spark discussion for the start of class. 

Start of class. Linked my screen to IWB using the Apple TV (we have put them in all classrooms to eliminate need for cabling and to provide a method for mirroring that will enable devices to connect regardless of ports they have – Air Parrot helps us to connect PCs via the Apple TV)

Opened LMS class page – showed the YouTube video. See below. 

Sparked a great discussion about sexualisation of young girls and entrepreneurship. Not specific to what we are focused on at the moment, but I’m a great believer in starting class with something that prompts thinking and sets the climate right for the rest of the lesson. Brain juices were flowing. 

Last student group were presenting a project. Opened my Hapara Teacher Dashboard and went to the student grid view – found the student’s Google Slide presentation and opened it so it was viewable to the class. 

After presentation, opened my Google Drive to create a collaborative doc that students could work on to provide feedback about what elements were necessary for an effective presentation. Pasted link in LMS class page so all students could access it quickly and begin offering their thoughts. Advised them to write their name in the doc so that they could ‘pin’ a place in the doc for their input. 

Had the doc viewable on the screen so that we could all see the doc forming. Set a time limit to encourage them to get ideas down quickly. 

Students identified elements of effective presentations and explained their choices. We then did some verbal analysis of the presentations they had been delivering in previous sessions and identified what they did well and what could have been done better. 

Sent them to the LMS class page to click on the link to another page developed to support our Pecha Kucha task  – they were just being introduced to the idea. A link to the Pecha Kucha site was on the page. We looked at the page together and played a couple from the most viewed section to learn about the technique. 

Class ended. Students were reminded to add comments to the Social Stream on the class page in response to the Tree House Dolls video and to add anything there they see that they think may be worth us looking at as a class. 

While I understand that there are teachers who feel stressed by the introduction of computing into classrooms and our constant availability when online spaces become the norm and expected practice in your school, I think some of us who have adapted would find it more stressful to have the technology removed.

Personally, I can’t imagine working differently from the way I’ve described above. I’m not sure my students want to work any differently either.

But I do want to qualify this: our school has strategically provided the systems we need to enable a workflow like mine to be possible. Teachers need support to understand how systems can work to complement one another enabling technology to become normalised practice within a classroom.

I’d recommend a read of the TechnologyEd edition. They do make some good points about the use of email in schools and the changing expectations of school community members when we are contactable 24/7. There was a suggestion teachers might want to delete their Twitter account – not happening here anytime soon!

Looking back…

At the end of 2013, I read a post from Steve Brophy where he reflected on the year that was. Just the other day I read his 2014 reflection of the year that was. I’m thinking a reflection on the two years just gone is warranted seeing that I never got one posted last year!

In 2014, Steve took on a position similar to mine (Director of ICT and eLearning), and his summation of the experience echoes strongly how I felt in my first year. To go from being Head of Library and English teacher, to someone who has overarching responsibility for managing the school’s infrastructure and directions the school would be taking with platforms and devices, was a huge leap. Just getting my head around the language of the area I was now working in was challenging. Everything is an acronym, and you look pretty darn silly when you’re in meetings with vendors negotiating contracts if you don’t have a handle on an acronym. I’m not ashamed to admit there were occasions when I’d nod knowledgeably then retreat to my computer after a meeting to play catch-up with Google.

2013 saw the introduction of a new Learning Management System (Schoolbox) and 2014 saw the introduction of Google Apps for Education and Hapara Teacher Dashboard across our school. We also introduced Chromebooks and Nexus 7 devices in our Junior School as part of this move. These were huge undertakings requiring staff buy in for success. I’ve had to work out ways to communicate effectively to help staff understand systems and have tried very hard to offer professional development opportunities and well as support in online environments. I’ve found the following an effective way to explain new features quite effective when you’re starved of face to face contact with the whole staff cohort. Make a quick screencast using Screencast-o-matic, upload to Google Drive, embed in LMS and share via email.

I’ve continued to teach a class while taking on this role, and introduced a new elective called ‘Language of our Times’ focused on communication in today’s world. This meant creating new curriculum and shifting my pedagogy into methodology such as Project Based Learning – all in the midst of learning how to manage the network and introduce new systems! While it’s been challenging, it’s also been incredibly exciting. The students have loved the class and I’ve loved teaching them. True to form (for me, anyway) I’ve changed each unit from year to year, based on what the students need and responding to shifts on the Internet. Keeping a foot in the classroom keeps you grounded and enables you to model effective use of the systems you’ve introduced. Credibility with staff matters  – the old adage ‘Practice what you Preach’ really does hold weight.

Suffice to say, the last two years have seen me on an exponential learning curve, one that required a huge investment of time and took me away from blogging on a regular basis. It’s something I have mixed feelings about; there have been many times when I felt that I had something worthy of sharing, but the energy levels were low at the end of long days. I really do feel the need to reinvigorate this space – I’m hopeful that 2015 will see me post on a more regular basis.

What has really sustained my appetite for learning over the last two years has been the opportunities I’ve had to keynote at various conferences across the country. I derive energy from these experiences. Putting a keynote together sharpens my thinking and the interactions with conference participants really helps me remain committed to sharing what I know. What fascinates me right now is what the future holds and what this might require of us as educators. What are the learning environments we need to create to help our students navigate a very different world of work? What are the skills we need to teach effectively in new environments and what will school look like 15 years from now? My reading focuses on thinking around this  – I can be pretty interesting at conferences and pretty boring at dinner parties!

Looking forward…

What will 2015 bring? Consolidation at school level – no new platforms to introduce, but a focus on how to best use ICT to personalise learning experiences for students. In my view, we have the platforms we need – moving through the technology adoption cycle to appeal to the early and late majority is where the work lies.

I’ll continue reading and maintaining my Twitter presence – it’s by far the quickest way to share and the connections formed in that network are my go to place when I get discouraged at school level that change isn’t happening quickly enough. Communicating with like minds feeds my soul.

It’s my greatest hope that I will find time to invest in this space and share my thoughts and perhaps some insight into the work I’m doing at school level. Let’s see what happens when the pace increases – perhaps short bursts of content are what I need to aim for. Long reflective posts take time!

‘Language of our Times’ – my opportunity to teach content and skills that I think matter

I teach this wonderful elective at Year 9 called ‘Language of our Times’. It’s wonderful, because I’ve had the freedom to create the curriculum. The premise behind the subject is that we are studying how we communicate in today’s world. So far this year my students have explored the art of presenting well by creating Pecha Kucha presentations (and been supported by the generous Garr Reynolds in the process) and have looked at the way John Green uses social media platforms to grow his audience and support his career as an author.

I thought that sharing a task I set my class to do might be helpful to people out there who are teaching English and perhaps thinking about how they might incorporate something that recognises what might be required if you are intending to write in online spaces.

THE TASK!

Write a Feature Article for an Online Newspaper.

Your focus: John Green and the methods he employs to build his audience.

But first….you need to do some research.

I have created a page in iVE  (our LMS) with links to articles about John Green and online videos where John is discussing his life (amongst other things). To do all of this reading and viewing is very time consuming but necessary if you are going to understand your subject matter in depth.

So….you are going to pool your talent and work in groups to do the research. In your group you will need to divvy up the reading and viewing. I would like you to create a shared Google Doc (that you file in the Language of our Times folder in your Google Drive) where you will be identifying what source you have read and writing notes that are visible to all in the group to ensure you come to a shared understanding of John Green and all he does.

Writing the feature article – transmedia article (text, pictures and video)

Necessary elements:

Effective Headline

An inviting lead that draws the reader into the article

Hyperlinks to source material

An embedded video

Suitable pictures that complement the text

References to experts, use of quotes to support claims being made.

A well structured piece of writing that follows conventions for online newspaper publishing (we’ll be looking at exemplar models in class to assist your understanding of what this looks like)

An effective conclusion.

Minimum word length: 750 words

The students did require exemplar models to gain an understanding of the structure of an online news article. While we we working on this task, John Green was heavily involved on promotion for the film of ‘The Fault in our Stars’, so there was plenty to provide as models, like this one here. They really needed to see what a good lead looked like and the nature of writing for online audiences where the paragraphs are often very short and sometimes even just one line.

Quite a bit like blogging really.

I think this is so important to teach our young people. Schools (particularly English classes) tend to get tied up in the mire of the five paragraph essay, when in real life, no one in their right mind is ever going to stick to such a pre-determined structure. Well, not me, anyway.

Demonstrating how to hyperlink text is a skill that often needs to be taught. I’ve written about this in the past. When I went through this with the students, I could hear the ‘aaahhhs’ around the room as they discovered the mystery of  hyperlinked text. Who, I ask, is teaching this skill, and how many teachers out there even know how to do it? I’ve shown plenty in my time. Surely this is something that is a fundamental skill in today’s day and age?

I had the students write their article in Google Docs so that I could give them feedback through Hapara Teacher Dashboard (another post I need to write!). This enables me to shoot into their Docs quickly and makes the feedback loop between them and me really fast. One of the features lacking in Google Docs at the moment is the ability to embed a video so the students had to take screenshots of a YouTube video and provide the link.

I do have to say, the quality of the work submitted was pretty high. I was genuinely blown away by the headlines and leads the students came up with. One student had five different headlines written in the planning stages and all surpassed many I had seen in the exemplars we had looked at.

I’ve asked one of my students, Emma, if I could share her piece here. She’s agreed, so take a read yourself and see if you think this piece is as good as I think it is. I’m pretty darn impressed that a Year 9 student is capable of producing a piece at at this standard.

 

John Green, the Internet Community Puppeteer

 

Screenshot 2014-08-06 20.53.54

                                                                                                                                                                         John Green

If you are one of the small minorities that aren’t familiar with the name ‘John Green’, you won’t remain that way for long. From humble beginnings, this Indiana-based author has become one of the most successful people on the Internet. Using his large fan base “Nerd fighters” he has made his way to become a young adult bestseller novelist, a famous YouTuber and earned his place on the Time’s list of the most 100 influential people in the world.

As the internet continues to be of larger importance in modern day society, more and more time is being spent in this virtual space. John Green suggested humorously that we should “Just move to the Internet, its great [there]. We get to live inside where the weather is always awesome.” But this is becoming increasingly true, especially amongst the younger generations. John Green has managed to become very influential online, hence reaching out to a larger audience than ever possible before the 21th century. A single “tweet” on his twitter recommending a book can cause the sales to boom the same day. Critics have dubbed this phenomenon the “John Green Bump”.

But how did he become so influential?

His road to fame probably began during project “Brotherhood 2.0”; one of the first vital points in John Green’s Internet take over. In 2007 he and his brother Hank agreed to only communicate through YouTube as a medium. From January the 1 until the 31st of December, the two brothers took turns uploading videos to their YouTube channel, “VlogBrothers” every weekday.  The videos had varied content. It usually had the brothers talking about their lives and things that genuinely matter to them while lacing in jokes and trying to make each other laugh. From this project they not only entertained each other but also a large audience that was later dubbed “Nerdfighters”. Currently this channel has over 2 million subscribers alone.

The Nerdfighters are supposedly “made up of awesome”. They are John Green’s loyal army of extremely active fans (some who are well known youtubers themselves). John Green enjoys being a self-proclaimed nerd, “…because nerds like us are allowed to be ironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-and-down-in-the chair-can’t-control-yourself love it.” And John Green’s ever-abundant Nerdfighters do exactly that. They nerd over and love everything to do with John Green: his merchandise, his books, his videos, his words and him. As a result their influence in the online space is of colossal proportions due to their sheer enormity. They promote John Green and what he does, further spreading his influence amongst the online community, for free.

Screenshot 2014-08-06 20.55.34

                                                                                                                                                                            John Green at a fan meeting

 As well as managing the “Vlogbrothers” channel, John Green also produces “CrashCourse,” an educational YouTube channel, where he educates his audience in 12 minutes about world history, psychology, biology, ecology, literature and chemistry. Using humour and entertaining visuals, he makes his lessons more fun and educational. These 12-minute clips are easy to fit within classes or study periods and making them a convenient tool for teachers. His indirect presence further expands his audience as he is introduced to a younger generation of consumers through the internet-savvy teachers.

John Green also puts his dominance on the web to good use for the less fortunate. Using his extensive Internet presence he created “ProjectforAwesome”, (also known as P4A) an event that occurs for two days (traditionally Dec 18-19) annually where YouTubers raise money for a charity of their choice by promoting it to their audience. In 2013 they successfully raised $869,171. That is almost double the amount they raised the year previously, suggesting that his audience has grown considerably larger in just a year.

As an author, John Green wrote the young-adult best sellers, “Looking for Alaska”, “Paper Towns” and the immensely popular “The Fault in Our Stars (TFiOS)” which has been converted into a major feature film adaptation. This tearjerker is rare amongst young adult fiction because it is a cancer book, where the main protagonist is a cancer patient. The book received highly positive reviews with critics such as the New York Times describing the book as “”a blend of melancholy, sweet, philosophical and funny” and that it “stays the course of tragic realism”. Upon release of the book, it stayed as number one bestseller list for 44 weeks and had 150,000 pre-orders (which John Green kindly hand signed each copy diligently).

Screenshot 2014-08-06 20.57.11

                                                                                                                      John Green’s bestseller, “Fault in Our Stars”

But what has made John and his works so successful?

 The answer probably comes down to a combination of free, his endorsements, thanks to his fan base, and the fact that people generally really like it. The proof? Well, the average rating is 4.52 out of five, on goodreads.com, which is very high in comparison to most books (e.g. “Perks of Being a Wallflower” average rating is 4.2). The book was also voted as one of the winners of Goodreads choice Awards 2012 and the winner of Children’s Choice Book Awards for Teen Book of the Year. The readers obviously also seemed to have liked it enough to recommend it to their friends and family. John Green suspects that another factor leading to the books success is the fact that his “readers are evangelists.”

The people who read his books tend to be incredibly devoted fans who want to convert everyone they possibly can into Nerdfighters or at least, a fan of TFiOS, filling up posts and comments with fan art, gifs quoting the novel and screaming pleas for people to read the book. John Green could not ask for a better audience.

Such an audience isn’t to be taken for granted. John Green puts a lot of effort into connecting with his fans. He asks them for their opinion and seems generally curious. He somehow miraculously manages and is active on a vast variety of social media platforms including YouTube, Twitter, tumblr, Facebook, Goodreads, subbable (a sharing platform which he and his brother Hank founded), his own blog and instagram. He sends out surveys to gather data do that he can shape his activities to suit his audience and gauge which social media platform seem to attract the most visitors and how they found out about him in the first place. He calls this survey, “Nerdfighteria Census”. He also arranges fan-meet ups and gatherings so that he can meet his fans and help them to feel closer as a community.

 His audience is attracted to his humble, likeable and witty personality, making him an idealistic role model. He believes in self-acceptance, accepting other people and fighting for the right to be who you want to be. He “… tr[ies] to live life so that [he] can live with [him]self.”

 Watch a video from his youtube channel Vlogbrothers, “What To Do With Your Life”:

 John Green has set a high standard for role models everywhere. His presence on the Internet, as vast and extensive as it is, is not just beneficial for him. It is also beneficial to a lot of people who are influenced by him, those who would like to aspire to become someone like him and also to become someone like themselves. Marketers and authors who wish to promote themselves should also look to John Green for his good use of social media platforms and connecting with his fans. John Green is also looked up to by those who can relate to him and just want to also remind each other DFTBA (Don’t forget to be awesome); borrowing John Green’s catchphrase as both a greeting, farewell and encouragement.

I was impressed. I hope you were too.

What did I do wrong?

I didn’t get my students to create a bibliography and properly cite the sources they had used. Massive oversight being a Teacher-Librarian by trade and all. Something I will need to rectify next time.

I wish I could share all of my student’s work. The time they invested into this task was impressive and I’m sure they learnt skills that might not be being covered elsewhere. I’m loving the opportunity to explore interesting curriculum and teach my students skills and content that I think are important in today’s world.

 

 

 

Chromebooks, Google Apps…and all that Jazz

My quest to discover more about Google Apps and Chromebooks led me to Google’s Sydney offices today, where a session hosted by Suan Yeo (Head of Education at Google Australia/Asia) was being held for schools interested in pursuing this line. It was great walking into a room with some familiar faces, and it ticked off one of those bucket list items for me – getting to see what Google looks like as a working environment. More on that later.

First up. I’ve had a Chromebook for near on a month now. Mine is the Acer model, purchased in large part because of the extra ports, especially the VGA connection that would allow it to hook up easily to projectors and whiteboards at my school. I love it. Honestly, I do. Most of my life is spent in connected environments  – I move from home that has constant wifi access, to school that has constant wifi access, and if I can’t find wifi access, I can tether the Chromebook to my iPhone and I’ve once again got the access I need. Earlier this month I attended a day at ISV learning about policy formation. I took the Chromebook with me and used an app called Scratchpad to take notes offline, then moved to tethering the phone when I wanted to check up on websites they’d mentioned, then untethered and headed back to Scratchpad when I’d no need for Internet connection. Right now, I’m on the plane back to Melbourne, using Scratchpad on the Chromebook once again to write this up. Easy.

English: An Acer Chromebook showing the introd...
English: An Acer Chromebook showing the introductory screen walking news users through the touchpad’s features. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I left for Sydney yesterday, I uploaded word docs from my hard-drive on my Macbook Pro to Google Docs, so I could access them last night when I needed them. I can look at them on the Chromebook, but can’t edit them – this will come soon enough (end of the year maybe?) when Google releases its Quickoffice app to the general populace that will enable editing of Microsoft software within Chrome and Google Drive. There are USB ports on the Chromebook, and I could have brought one of those with me with the Word docs loaded on that as it’s easy to open the contents of a USB on a Chromebook. My son describes the Chromebook as an ‘on the fly’ computer, and I have to agree. It’s light, smaller than my Macbook and easy to put in my handbag, and it’s become my preferred hardware for using as I sit in a recliner at home and catch up on email and what’s happening in the world of Twitter.

I do have to access the Web version of Outlook to check the school email at the moment, but that’s not really a big deal. Over the past couple of months I’ve become a seriously heavy Google Drive user, preferring to create most documents there rather than using what I now view as the clunky Word options on my computer that don’t offer me the sharing and easy editing options Google Docs do. I’ve been using Google Docs to share meeting agendas and notes with staff, hoping that their ability to easily edit will rub off and they will see the benefits of working this way too. My students certainly can see the benefits. In our latest PBL venture, groups are already creating Google Docs to collaborate on idea formation. They’ve seen the benefit of the comments feature in Google Docs, and I’ve been providing feedback to them when they were creating an extended writing piece. There were times over the recent school holiday period when students and I were online commenting synchronously – a seriously good opportunity for personalising the learning experience.

I haven’t been easy on it either. I’m a 20 tab girl most days – I’ve got 18 tabs open right now and that’s my usual modus operandi. When I was editing student docs, I was flicking between tabs, watching YouTube vids, looking at a constantly refreshing Tweetdeck – you get the picture. One night I did find that Docs were dropping out and I had to kill pages, but they were easily restored by just heading back into Drive and accessing the page again. I haven’t seen that happen again over the last couple of weeks. I’m not bothered by the smaller screen, and the keyboard is responsive, if a bit plasticy feeling. But let’s face it – this is a $295 machine, not a $1200 Macbook. I’m not expecting miracles. The trackpad is nowhere near as good as my Macbook Pro, and I notice that most when I’ve been using the Macbook all day at school and revert to the Chromebook at night. I’ve been solely using this Chromebook for the last 24 hours, and I’ve got to that stage where it’s feeling pretty normal. I know I’ll notice the difference again when I fire up the Macbook again. But. like I say, this is not high end hardware – it’s the on the fly computer and for that purpose, it’s doing me just fine.

Battery life on this Acer model Chromebook sits around 4 hrs depending on what you’re doing with it. If you’re accessing a lot of YouTube vids and streaming content, you’ll see it suck up battery life. The Samsung model has longer battery life (and looks cooler – very Macbook Air looking) but it has only 16 G of hard drive storage. This Acer model has 320 G of storage capacity. That’s pretty remarkable given its size and weight.

I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the Chrome Web Store and downloading apps that I could see used in a school setting. I did sit there the other night trying to figure out what I’d be stymied doing if this was my sole device. I figured video editing would be the biggest problem, but then I discovered WeVideo in the Chrome Web Store and spent the night creating a simple video using it. It was very intuitive and shares the same editing principles of MovieMaker and iMovie.

What appeals to me about Chromebooks in a school setting is the management console that is available if you buy Chromebooks for your students and pay an extra $30 a device to hook them up to this console. It’s there where you can deploy apps and arrange to time the frequent (around every 6 weeks) Chrome OS updates. This way you’d have an always updated computer and could respond to classroom needs if a teacher discovers a new app and wants it available to the students quickly.

I also like the idea of offering the Chromebook as an option for older students who aren’t pursuing subjects requiring access to high end video editing software or tools like Photoshop. It’s an option where they could use Google Apps for word processing and could take full advantage of the sharing and editing options at that critical time of their education. It’s also providing them with an excellent entry point if they are about to move to university environments that are using Google Apps across their campuses.

Now, to the Google session today. What was great about this was the opportunity to hear from real life teachers and technology directors who have deployed Google Apps across their school. I wanted to hear about the migration of staff mail over to Gmail and how that had been managed in terms of people’s level of comfort with security and our duty of care. A representative from the Catholic Education Office spoke how the move to Google Apps was precipitated by the need for the renewal of Microsoft licensing for Exchange. Moving to Gmail saved them money and allowed them to utilise savings for professional development training. They had their lawyers look at the documentation from Google and were satisfied that their security concerns were covered. They now have a vast number of people within their diocese using Google Apps and have been overwhelmed with the buy in from schools wanting to step up and use the system. The point was made by the panel that the tools within the Google Apps management console were sufficiently granular to manage retrieval of data should you need it and disable access if that was required.

Seeing Google in action was very exciting for a geeky person like me. (I never thought I’d ever describe myself as geeky, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that’s probably the best way to describe me now!) I didn’t go into their staff working spaces, but we did get to have lunch there. With a view of the Harbour Bridge and a wide array of food choices at your disposal at no charge, it’s a nice way to support your workers while they have a break.

I do think that Google are offering something pretty impressive for education, and it’s free. From my perspective as someone responsible for eLearning, I want my students and staff to understand the potential of collaborative cloud based software. Like I’ve said here before, using systems like these require an informed populace, people who understand how things work and what you’re doing when you use them. One thing I’m very interested in exploring further is the Hapara Teacher Dashboard, a third party service ($4.00 a student I think) that allows you to oversee what is happening across your school with the creation of docs, blog posts etc. As I explore things further, I’ll try and find the time to share my learning here.

Signing out – Jenny 🙂

*fully composed on an Acer Chromebook.

** Forgot to mention – a Chromebook boots up in around 8 seconds.