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Oct 12, 2015

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How did I ever live without Google Apps for Education?

Guest post by Lianne Herbert

Introduction

The 6 week GAFE cloud-based learning course is a fantastic introduction to the world of Google Apps for Education. The course materials are vast and easily accessible. As a complete beginner, I found the instructional videos interesting and informative. The written documentation is useful for studying features in further depth. Materials are flexible and able to be used at home, in the classroom or on the go. The GAFE course tutors are very knowledgeable, supportive and on hand to give advice at any time via Gmail, Google + or Google Hangouts. The forums and discussion groups are also a valuable resource. Tutors and fellow students of the GAFE course and other Eduro courses are keenly sharing information, articles, videos, and great additional knowledge/expertise can be gathered here.

This experience was one of strong communication, ease and convenience of learning. Although difficult to condense what has been gained from this course into a single blog, the following is a snapshot of my experience.  

What have I learnt and what can I take away from this course?

There were a number of features of Google apps that I had never come across before. Some of the highlights include…

Google Black Menu for Chrome

This is an app inside chrome that allows you to access all of your most frequently used google apps at the click of a button. No more shortcuts or searching. Once installed, it adds a button to your browser that allows you to open the menu bar with one click. You then simply scroll down and choose any of the Google features –  Search, Google+, Translate, Maps, Gmail, Calendar etc. If you hover over one of these buttons, it will even give you a preview of your mail, drive, docs etc, allowing you to check it without even opening it. At the bottom of the list you can, again, scroll down and click to see the vast amount of google services available and add them to your menu, adjusting it to your favourite/most user friendly view. There are many apps within the menu that are relatively unheard of, but are exceptionally useful. Another well used Google chrome extension that I discovered was that of split screen, allowing you to split the screen and carry out research/multiple projects at once. This is useful when planning lessons and keeping on top of work emails and for finding resources and links without the need to keep switching screens. Amazing!

Tasks

This is an incredibly useful feature of Google apps. Your tasks can be organised into different task lists; meetings, daily duties, class, home etc. You can have different task lists for different subjects – English, Maths etc. Reminders can be set, task lists can be shared with other teachers/TA’s and tasks can be ticked off and removed when done. The brilliant thing about this is that these lists then sync across your computer, iphone, laptop or ipad and can be updated wherever or whenever you like. Absolutely perfect when you remember something vital on the train and do not need to waste time emailing yourself to add to your to do list! Or like me, having a number of to do lists scattered around in different places. I am 100% more organised with this feature! 

Google Docs and Sheets

In other words, this is a Google version of Word and Excel. These allow you to write, collaborate and edit wherever you are and whenever you like. The difference is that firstly, your documents are saved in your drive and easily accessible from any of your devices, and secondly, they are saved every few seconds to ensure that you do not lose data. From personal experience, this is vital! As well as easily accessible, the documents are able to be shared with other individuals and/or groups, who can then edit simultaneously or make edits to at leisure, but keep one central master document. This has been especially useful at school when sharing and accessing rotas/schedules. When editing documents with other people, you can easily see where other people are editing because the section they are working on is highlighted and their name appears. This allows you to see their change and be able to edit a different section.

Google docs allow you to upload and convert Word documents, format and style documents, allow different permissions so that some people can edit, others view and others comment on the document. It is especially useful to be able to see the revision history, particularly if you are asking students to edit documents. Once you have completed editing your document, you can even translate it into another language!!! Finally you are able to ‘share’ it with someone via drive, or email it to them directly or use in a website/blog.

Google sheets also allows you to import and convert Excel documents as well as export back to Excel. It also allows you to chat in real time whilst editing documents and create charts of your data. Spreadsheets can also be embedded into your blog or classroom website too.

Calendars

It has been very helpful learning how to actually use the calendars properly throughout this course.  Calendars also (with a little tweaking) sync across your devices and allow you to add to your calendars from your iphone, ipad or computer. You can keep track of events and ask for reminders (very obvious reminders, or more subtle ones too). The thing I found most useful was to be able to customise the view. You can input your working hours, start the week on a Monday/Sunday. There is a 4 or 5 day week option and you can view the calendar on a daily, weekly or monthly view.

Of equal importance is the multiple calendar feature. You can add a number of calendars and keep your personal, class, year group, work meetings, national holiday, gym, swimming, track calendars all separately but when clicked on, will overlap and show you EXACTLY what is happening each day. You can view these calendars in isolation or simultaneously. A fantastic feature! It is especially easy to use as it is colour coded and labeled for ease of use.

You are also able to share your calendar with other people and allow them to view when you are available/busy (colleagues/students) or allow them to view the specific details of your events (family/team members). When adding events to your calendar, you may add attachments, add a google hangout option or invite people to your meetings/events.

If working internationally, there is also a great google calendar lab that allows you to set up a work clock to see the local time of a meeting.

Labs Within Gmail

Labs within Gmail are experimental features that may come and go at a moment’s notice. There are some extremely useful labs and sometimes, if successful, they become permanent features. Labs can be accessed through the cog and then settings buttons in Gmail.

The ‘Calendar’ lab has been very helpful. It allows you to see a mini version of your calendar inside your email window. This is really useful and allows you to keep an eye on what is coming up in the next few days. It could be improved by allowing you to reach the main calendar by clicking somewhere in this area once as a shortcut, rather than having to  go back up to the top to find the main calendar.

The ‘Mark as read’ lab is a good way to mark your emails without actually having to access them or any other drop down menus. Personally, a ‘mark as unread’ button would be even more useful though.

The ‘Right-side chat’ and ‘unread message icon’ labs allow you to chat/collaborate easily while working and also save space and help make new messages more visible. These were all really useful labs and have been shared with colleagues at school as they really allow you to be more time efficient. I wish there were more labs! Don’t forget to check them often as new ones may appear.

Inbox Zero and Priority Inbox

Priority Inbox helps to save you time if you receive a large amount of email regularly. It attempts to automatically identify your important incoming messages and separates them out from everything else. Gmail cleverly prioritises your incoming messages, including who you’ve emailed and chatted with most and which keywords appear frequently in the messages you opened recently. Gmail tries to guess what emails you place most importance on and if it doesn’t quite get it right, you are able to ‘teach’ it by selecting the message in question, and clicking the “mark as important” or “mark as not important” button (the buttons with plus and minus icons).

I have changed my email settings to priority inbox and must admit that it really does help sort emails efficiently. Combined with having an ‘inbox zero’ policy, emailing has become so easy and non stressful. Every night I sort the emails in my inbox by labelling them and archiving them. This allows me to label the items I may need to find regularly and find things with greater ease. With a clean inbox each day, I am also more productive and efficient. It is mentally refreshing and not overwhelming (as a full inbox can be!)

Future application in the classroom and impact upon teaching

I would say the areas that were the most interesting to me personally were the features that I could see us using in class in the future and that would have the most impact upon our teaching. Areas include Google Hangouts, Google Sites and the use of Google Search. These previously unused features had either been overlooked or underestimated.

Google Hangouts

While experimenting with Google Hangouts I was extremely impressed with the possibilities. It is fantastic for use during a lesson. Students are able contribute collaboratively, add videos and watch them together, chat, drop in photos, links etc and a record of everything can be kept and used for notes for the whole class afterwards. Amazing! For the younger class that I am teaching at the moment, this is too difficult to do individually but could potentially be done as a class on the interactive whiteboard (if connected to the internet). Researching the features, hangouts is perfect for kids to communicate and grow in confidence. The Google Effects button adds a moustache, crazy hat or a cake and the kids love it! It could also be fantastic for classes to collaborate with other schools/classes around the world. It is ideal for a round the world theme and to inspire young writers with mystery hangouts!!

Hangouts is a brilliant collaborative tool for students but also for educators. Even planning could be done remotely between teachers, year group leaders and the senior leadership team. It is difficult to get everyone in the same location at the same time as we have two campuses. This is an excellent way around the problem. This is also useful when different classes/ year groups wish to collaborate.

Hangouts for group chats, and video and voice calls allow real time collaboration. You can also record your Hangout session and post it on YouTube for others to watch later. This is useful for students/parents/teachers. Some great ways to use Hangouts in the classroom include having guest speakers talk to your class by distance (other cities/countries even). Teachers could also conduct meetings with parents who are away on business or to save time during the day. You could send the parents useful links and documents while talking and show examples of the student’s work.

The only negative thing that I have to say about experiencing google hangouts, is that the quality of video hasn’t been good. The video has cut out many times, and there are large speech delays on the video. This has not happened every time and may be wifi related but when it is working properly, this has the potential to have a huge impact on teaching.

Sites

Google sites is the easiest way to make information accessible to people who need quick, up-to-date access. People can work together on a Site to add file attachments, information from other Google applications (like Google Docs, Google Calendar).

Creating a site together is as easy as editing a document, and you always control who has access, whether it’s just yourself, your team, or your whole school. Sites can be published so that a select audience can view it or it can even be published to the world (or maybe just your class parents is enough!)

I thought that this would be the perfect way to keep our class parents informed about the learning themes in class, timetables, gym/swimming schedules, items required for school and also a great way to share our twitter account, blog and photographs of our learning.

In the Google apps learning centre there is a fantastic sites tutorial that leads you through the process of setting up a website. As a complete beginner who had never created a website before, this was brilliant, and very simple. I used the different templates and themes to create my sample version of a class website and had fun with it by editing pages, adding images and site features, adjusting the colours, fonts and backgrounds to suit my specifications.

This will have a great impact on teaching as parents will be more informed, more involved and there will be a reduction in administrative queries/emails etc, allowing more time for teachers to teach and children to learn. It will also be a creative outlet for children to share their work, providing them great satisfaction and pride in their achievements.  

Search

The biggest reflection I have had when searching with Google is the importance of being specific and using the operators to dig deep! I have never used operators to search in the past as I didn’t really know how to use them properly. Now when I search for information, I really feel like I am using google search more effectively, finding the most accurate and up to date information. This is useful when teaching as I can find the perfect examples to illustrate learning concepts to students. While my students are very young and do not search for things independently yet, I also found the ability to evaluate the quality of the results found in terms of credibility is also hugely important. Are the sources credible/trustworthy and is the information opinion or hard fact? Learning how to judge websites is a key skill as well. This is something that should definitely be taught to older students at our school to ensure they can complete accurate and reliably informed assignments.

This is not the most fun topic but is one of the most useful for educators and students.  It is vital to be specific about what you are looking for and he wording used. The more precise you are, and the more thoughtful you are before your search, the more accurate results you find.

Although in Year 1 my students are not at the stage where they are searching for information on the internet, it is important to help them understand how to think about the outcome. What do I need to know?, how will I find that out?,what are the best terms/words I can use?

Later in the year we will begin thinking about where information comes from e.g. books, websites, TV etc and start to understand understand that ICT can give access quickly to a wide variety of resources.

We will talk about their use of ICT and the Internet  and other methods to find information and while they will never be allowed to do open searching, we will direct them to specific content while helping them use simple search tools to do this. The students will need to know which buttons to use, which areas to go to in order to search for images, videos etc. I think that while a lot of the information is a little advanced for year 1 students, there are some take away features that will be teachable and there will be a positive impact upon our teaching. For older students at the school, I have discovered ways of teaching them how to search effectively.

For me, I am learning so much about specific searches and am now saving a lot of time. I think this is something to be shared with colleagues too. We all need more time and better results!

Conclusion

The Cloud-Based Learning course featuring Google Apps For Education was an excellent introduction to the Google Apps platform. I gained many new skills and an incredible amount of knowledge in such a short time and aim to continue learning about more apps as they are improved and newly released. Their scope, in terms of organisational use, performance and communication with others is superb. In terms of classroom application and communication with parents, there are no end of useful features. The only thing holding us back is time! So many great features and not enough time to learn about and use them properly. My aim is to master the ones I have learnt throughout the course and then build on that gradually. The great thing is that Google Apps for Education are complex, but easy to use, and do actually save us time and a great deal of effort. It is well worth investing the time, and you will see the impact that can be had on classroom organisation and teaching.

Image Credit: flickr photo shared by Robert Scoble under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

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