Dec 012008

The prospective of a possible Netbook purchase at school meant that I felt obliged to contribute a (somewhat less than inspired) idea to Doug Belshaw’s collaborative brainstorm:
Doug says:

If you’d like to collaborate, here’s what to do:

  1. Look at the presentation above to see what tips have already been added.
  2. Send a message on Twitter to @dajbelshaw, or use the contact form on this site in order to request to be added as a collaborator.
  3. Add a slide in a similar fashion to the ones already there, making sure you credit any Creative Commons-license images used.
  4. Change the number of tips now included in the presentation on the first slide, and add your name as being a collaborator.
Oct 262007

Introducing Google Apps

Google Apps offers a way for students and teachers to communicate and share ideas easily. Of course you can share documents by email, but the reality is likely to be that students own computers with different platforms and software versions. Wikis are great for collaborative web pages, but a Google Apps community offers more privacy and is easy to set up. ICT managers at school may balk at first – the idea of students having a second email account and possibly access to IM Chat, may raise hackles. But we’re here to encourage students to collaborate, to improve peer assessment and assessment for learning and the tools provided by Google are in many cases superior to those offered by a VLE. They are also free!

Imagine then the possibilities…

It’s a weekend and your class is at home, from where they can access your learning community via a web page. Logging into their personalized area, they find their online documents as well as their email. The teacher has shared a basic revision guide with the whole class. Individual students can modify the guide, adding their own contributions to create a collaborative resource. The teacher can check the revisions to see which student’s have contributed.

Student A is finishing a piece of coursework. She shares it with her teacher who makes some annotations in a different colour. Both teacher and student are working on the document simultaneously even though student A has a PC, and the teacher a Mac.

Student B has lost his homework diary. He receives an SMS text from the online Calendar mentioning the deadline is for the following day. He cancels his engagements and stays up half the night finishing your homework!

Student C has produced a brilliant expose of the limitations of the Hoyt model. With her permission you share it with those students who need a little inspiration.

Student D is working on an assignment. He passes it to student C, his critical friend who provides a little input. He then shares it with the teacher. The teacher notes that student D has worked hard but also takes the time to commend the diligence of the critical friend, whose contributions can be seen on the page revisions history.

Student E loses their folder. However their coursework is safely stored online.

Student F does some brilliant research on Fair Trade. He shares his work with the teacher who publishes it as a web page. Student F notices the teacher is online, so contacts him via IM, and makes some corrections.

Setting up Google Apps

Starting from scratch, the first step is to visit the Google Apps homepage and sign up for a new account. At this point you can opt to register a domain name through Google. It costs £4.70 per year and avoids you having to worry about configuring your existing email accounts. I recommend this option! Once your new domain is ready you can sign into your Google Apps account dashboard and start building your community.

dash The dashboard

I began by creating a single test account. Once you are ready to set up accounts for a class it’s easiest to create a bulk list of user names. This can be simply done using a spreadsheet, saved as a .csv file and uploaded to Google Apps.

Your users will need to be able to access the learning community. I used Google Pages to create a web site for my new domain. The homepage contains links to other pages and learning resources as well as a Google Calendar for homework deadlines. It also contains the link to the individual user’s start page.

home A web page for a learning community

The start page is where the individual user can log into the community and can be wholly or partly customizable by the students. Here is the start page for my community. I have opted to create a lockable section with a link to their email and Google Docs as well as a small section for announcements and news.

start The start page for the community

The final stage would be to apply for an upgrade to the Education Edition of Google Apps, which will increase the opportunities for support, though you don’t get any extra features over the standard version. (Compare versions here)

Working with the learning community

The community is now up and running. Students have their own email address and Google account. They can create and share Google documents presentations and spreadsheets and communicate via email and IM chat (although this feature is suspended at the moment.) I can keep a copy of documents sent to me for assessment and share examples of particularly good work, or resources produced collaboratively by other members of the class. I can enter homework deadlines into my own Google Calendar which then appear immediately on the calendar on my home page. (Students can subscribe to this calendar and can even opt to receive emails or SMS alerts for homework deadlines!) I find it easier to give written feedback by typing directly into their documents and I think the students prefer this method of marking. The Google Apps community doesn’t provide full access to the many other useful Google tools, for example My Maps and Picasa. To access these resources a separate Google account is required, however students could easily sign up using their community email address. At this point, vast horizons of possibility open up, which extend of course, far beyond the realms of Google. I’ve always preferred Flickr over Picasa for example, and it would be good to see students exploring and selecting web 2.0 tools on their own.

What about the VLE?

At some point in the next few months our school will adopt a VLE. I don’t want to set up a system that will work in direct opposition, though I’m mindful of the limitations of the VLE implementations I’ve seen. I’m concerned that many VLEs seem to be little more than electronic filing cabinets linked to robotic assessment practices. Few commercial VLEs seem to truly promote a constructivist approach to learning, and I’m hopeful that teachers at my school will be able to use the best online tools for the purpose rather than being required to use less effective tools that are part of the VLE. Shared calendars and blogging tools are key examples. I see my learning community working alongside the VLE, neither replacing nor competing with it. The VLE will host the school website, user and assessment data and shared documents. The Google Apps community serves to encourage effective communication, assessment and collaborative practices while avoiding platform and software incompatibilities.