Guest Post: Why We Went Google Apps
From time to time I'll have some guest posts this summer. I'm very pleased to have Jen Carey kick things off. She's been a fabulous colleague for EdTechTeacher, and an amazing live blogger at our events, and she'll be speaking at the EdTechTeacher Summit in Chicago in July. Here are her thoughts on why her school recently adopted Google Apps for Education.
Why We Went Google Apps for Education
Ransom Everglades School is a successful day school located in Coconut Grove, Fla. We pride ourselves on the progressive and innovative education that we provide our students, and our students do well in the college placement process. So then it may surprise some that we proactively explored and then implemented Google Apps for Education at our school. After all, if we are satisfied with our achievements, why would we look at making and applying a significant change at Ransom Everglades?
There are several reasons for this, of course. Like all good educational institutions, we look to the future—what will our students need to be successful in college and graduate school, as well as to lead satisfying and productive lives? How can we better facilitate the needs of our teachers and staff? How can we continue to achieve our standards of excellence? Like many other educational institutions, we heard a great deal about Google Apps for Education, so we decided to explore what it had to offer that could benefit the Ransom Everglades community.
What is GAFE
Google Apps for Education (GAFE) is a prominent technology tool that has been gaining momentum in both K-12 as well as higher education. It includes Google's core suite of applications (Drive, Calendar, Contacts, GMail, Sites, Talks/Hangouts) with the added ability to control, scale, and manage access with an eye for an educational institution's individual needs. For example, we activated Google Drive for students (so that they could use the word processing and cloud storage provided) but disabled Gmail (as we use our exchange server for email services); also, we enabled talks/hangouts for faculty and students in grades 10-12 to facilitate communication between faculty and online study groups for our AP students. The highly customizable features of GAFE allowed us to explore available options and then implement them progressively and as needed.
Promote 21st Century Skills
The development of 21st century learning and skills (collaboration with peers, digital literacy, effectively harnessing social media, and drawing skill sets across multiple disciplines) is no longer optional for students or teachers. Again, Google Apps for Education allows us as an institution to promote them within a safe and managed environment. Students can collaborate on research projects and papers using Google Drive's share features. By using tools such as Google Sites, students can create digital portfolios (I provide several examples in my article, "Google Sites for ePortfolios") to highlight their accomplishments and demonstrate their learning through multi-modal examples (documents, imagery, video, and more). What I like best as an educator, is that by building their work within Google tools, I can monitor their progress and provide feedback as they build and revise in real time! This is instrumental in assessing not just the end result, but the process (see my article, "Google Drive & Research Essays: Monitoring the Writing Process").
Security and Privacy
Along with more prominent use of Internet tools has come greater concern for student security and privacy. Many third party tools mine student data, use content for their own advertising purposes, and struggle with protecting valuable and sensitive data from hackers. Google itself, in its individual services, states that your documents, emails, and content created, stored, and sent via Google can be mined for content and sold to third party advertisers. This is exactly why there is a 13 year old age requirement for signing up for many services online (including Google). Several Federal mandates, such as FERPA, CIPA, and COPPA, establish basic requirements and guidelines for institutions to protect student's data and privacy online. Google Apps for Education is compliant with these mandates, in fact it is why there is not an age 13 age restriction for students to sign up for GAFE accounts. Institutional and student content cannot be provided to third parties and identities and information must be protected through robust, secure servers. Additionally, by using third parties tools like Cloudlock, we can ensure that our students are engaging and collaborating with others appropriately and safely.
Google Apps for Education is a free service provided for schools. However, it would be misleading to state that there are no costs involved. Just like all tech roll-outs, it is important to provide effective professional development for faculty and staff so that they can not only learn the basic features of these tools, but use them to deliver more innovative and pedagogically rich lessons. For example, one can simply replace Microsoft Word with Google Docs. At the same time, that doesn't take advantage of Docs' ability to collaborate and share with peers, effectively use its research tools, or for teachers to employ the revision history tool in order to monitor the revision process to better understand the evolution of a student's work.
In addition to professional development and training for faculty and staff, it may also be necessary to hire external support specialists to audit your exchange server (if you wish to migrate your calendar and mail services to Google) or sync your logins using a tool like GADS. It is always necessary to invest in assessment and planning on the front end to avoid serious complications after the fact.
Even with these initial investments, the cost savings in the long-term are astronomical. You do not have to pay for an expensive cloud based or remote login solution to allow faculty and students to access content off campus, you can save thousands of dollars on software licensing, provide greater storage space (GAFE currently provides 30GB of free cloud storage), and by migrating many of your internal services to the cloud you can free up your IT staff to focus on more important internal needs.
As Director of Educational Technology at Ransom, one of my favorite features of GAFE is that it provides a single solution for multiple issues - students can use Google Drive to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; students and faculty can share large files (such as images and videos) with ease; departments, staff, and students can maintain a single calendar; and Google Sites can readily serve for ePortfolios, class sites, and blog platforms. Instead of researching multiple different tools (having to focus on cost, privacy issues, and compatibility), there is often a tool in the Google Suite that will fit our needs.
Another great feature of Google Tools is that they are cloud based and cross-platform compatible. While our school primarily runs on a Windows platform, there are exceptions on campus within our Arts and Yearbook programs; many students and faculty have Macs at home; and if someone wants to access a resource on a phone there is not only iOS and Android, but Windows Phone and Blackberry (at least for now). Google Apps works across all of these platforms via Apps or a simple web browser. For example, a student can create a video on their iPhone at home, upload it to Google Drive via the App, and then share it with their teacher or classmates without having to use a flashdrive, email, or other creative solution. It seamlessly integrates across platforms. Specifically at Ransom Everglades, we struggled with more effective ways to use iPads. We are on a shared-cart model and using the Google Drive iPad App (free), we can readily get media on and off of the iPads, rendering them more effective mobile learning platforms.
Integration with Other Tools
With the rising ubiquity of GAFE in K-12 and higher education (more than 20 million students worldwide, 7 of 8 Ivy League Colleges, 72 of the top 100 schools; you can see their exponential growth along with their customers here), more and more educational services now integrate with Google. This is great for providing your users with easy single-sign-on options for third party apps, integrating with Learning Management Systems, and overall blending numerous services under a single umbrella. This allows for better and easier incorporation of new tools at your institution.
Like many other institutions, Ransom Everglades has a greening initiative. We recognize that our environment's resources are limited and we must do our part to limit waste and promote conservation efforts. The suite of tools within Google Apps for Education allows us to move forward with that initiative. For example, by providing students handouts via a shared Google Drive folder, I limit printing in my classroom. By storing documents and materials online, I not only conserve space but limit paper use. By having students store research, organize a project, write and revise electronically we limit waste. As we move forward with Google Apps for Education in conjunction with a robust overhaul of our wireless infrastructure and broadband, we hope to further our efforts to make our institution more environmentally friendly.
At Ransom Everglades, Our GAFE deployment is still in its early stages. However, after witnessing its successes in our initial pilot and deployment we have plans to explore a more extensive roll-out, such as migrating our exchange server, expanding our training, and moving our non sensitive records and documents to the cloud. Google Apps for Education has helped us to maintain and further our standards of excellence by promoting a more robust pedagogy, supporting our faculty and students in their needs, and continuing to allow us to provide innovative and robust pedagogy within our established rigorous curriculum.