Google Apps for Education

Many people have already mentioned that the Open University has adopted Google Apps for Education (including the OU official announcement, Will Woods, Niall Sclater, Tony Hirst, John Naughton). My department – the Institute of Educational Technology – hosted a workshop exploring the possibilities on 3 February. These are some notes I made in the discussion.


On the 19th January VCE made the decision. It was the product of about a year’s evaluation. Linked to email, decommissioning of FirstClass – many people brought in from other units, particularly for technical expertise. Choice was Google Apps or Microsoft Live@Edu. Google won, largely because of the ability to customise features – but first discussion with Google on actually doing that will be this Friday. Difference between what’s available to individuals, to corporate customers, and to educational organisations. Distinction between what OU is using right now (or soon), and what can be done with the range of these tools – which is perhaps the more exciting things. Learning Innovation Strategy Group has a business case – on the LIO web area.

Main provision is for student email and document sharing. Also e-Portfolio angle – MyStuff successor – is another project. Timeframe is four years initially; start date is part of the discussion on Friday. Broad timeframe to July to get student email rolled out. Likely to be an opt-in process to start with. Related difficulty – AL email is going with Microsoft Exchange (not Google!), probably October. So sharing with tutors is a potential source of confusion. Course use, or ePortfolios, or tight integration with tutors is likely to be later this year. Staff can have an account on Google. Google lets you invite anyone with an email address – so we can still do that without having to make ALs have yet another email address. Don’t want

ALs were given Exchange email to bring them in line with all other OU staff, as part of the continued effort to put them on the same basis as other staff. [NB You can use Gmail to pull your email through from Exchange (it’s a little fiddly, and does still need the email to go through the Exchange system).]

Google Apps is quite well integrated with mobile devices – certainly in comparison to Microsoft Live@Edu. You can get at (most) stuff – it’s much more about what’s practical to do on small devices.

(Instant messaging – we are looking at in more depth, need to work out presence indicators, but do want to do it.)

What does Google Apps for Education do?

  • Email, messaging, and calendars – shared calendaring via ical format, with feeds to mobile devices.
  • Document collaboration – documents, spreadsheets, presentations – share, edit – and user-created groups to create your own moderated forms and mailing lists.

OU adoption will likely include: email (Gmail), contacts (student directory), instant messaging and presence, calendar support, document creation, storage and sharing, websites.

Google sites (for websites) not widely adopted at other institutions, partly for concerns about student-maintained content on official websites.

The official Google video:

Very important to keep separate the whole world of services that Google provide, and what we are getting provided as part of the Google Apps for Education bundle, which has the single sign-on etc – it includes:

  • Google Docs: documents, spreadsheets, presentations. Includes ability to import from other documents. Can import and store any document! Even if it can’t display it – so like a virtual USB stick.
  • Email: Contact management, no advertisements.(address – will be kept? – four year agreement with Google)
  • Calendar
  • Instant messaging – do want this, just need to sort the presence
  • Groups – (may not be in first release to OU students) – shared groups, wiki, etc
  • Sites – create a website very easily, make it available selectively or to the world

So at the moment things like Google Sidewiki or Wave or AppEngine are not part of the Apps Education bundle.Which is all free to us.

What is the potential impact on the OU of Google Apps?

Possible areas to investigate include its impact on: Learning Design, Accessibility, Portfolios, Staff, Next gen stuff (Wave?), Practicalities and tools, Students, Assessment, Mobile.

Can you submit assignments via Google Docs? Key question. Not yet. Fundamental question: do we still need a VLE? In the medium term perhaps not. We could use a third-party provider for the assessment component and just interface to it. It also doesn’t have analytics type stuff. Use Google Docs instead of the eTMA system! May take a while.

API functionality is very important. Can replicate tutor group structure in Google Apps. Tutor groups aren’t going there initially – will put them in later, and award/programme-based stuff.

Do we want to get tutors in there immediately? Can do ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach, and see what happens – but then a challenge for support and coordination. FirstClass gives tutors a lot of freedom; this is a similar idea.

Help information (how to use it) is already out there. Not really keen for us to produce vast how-to documentation of our own and send that out in print. Duplicated effort, and would have to be updated. We do have a little control about roll-out of big upgrades/changes, but not minor tweaks.

An ePortfolio system is good idea – Docs does a lot of the functionality of that already. Another big thing is the Forms functionality in Google Docs. So the OU could set up forms for you, drop them in Google Docs for you (via the API), then you have everything for your course to complete your outline. But what it doesn’t have is the ability to freeze a set of documents at a certain point, or to change the ownership, or export a chunk at time. Might want an ‘export to eportfolio’ button.

The API (that OU can use) is not (?) available to general users. Would be fun to have test accounts and interfaces – perhaps a separate sandbox domain. University of Westminster are the trailblazers here – had a competition for their students to build their own apps! Would be cool to do that.

One cool potential use: Forms for student feedback. Rapid turnaround of feedback. It’s really easy to set up a form, share it with whoever you like, and have the results go straight in to a spreadsheet that you can do anything with. Big potential for the student survey tools and related projects including DALS. Better to have fewer rather than more systems.

Our deal is for four years, but we imagine it might go on for longer. Google’s open to us keeping the email accounts open indefinitely, including for alumni – though Google reserves the right to advertise to alumni! Tricky question of how to define an OU alumnus, though (versus ‘resting’ student).

Would be good to have Google Sites going – it’s all under, not the main bit, we take a responsive attitude to that. We own the data on the site; we can transfer that to the student, so they own it, and have responsibility. We’ll have responsive system for dealing with inappropriate material – and also with resisting frivolous and vexatious takedown requests. But if it’s our site, we do also need to make sure the environment isn’t discriminatory and people aren’t harassed.

Social space and OUSA – will be a big change. If we have Google Groups, any student can set up a group and invite people – which is a difference to the existing model where OUSA control the creation of those forums.  OUSA is currently concerned about  Moodle Forum functionality (compared to FirstClass).

Google Calendar might be better than the VLE one; so perhaps go for opening that up voluntarily now, then closing down the Moodle one after a year.

Disaster recovery is way better than what we can provide – it’s core to their business; we’re just a university. We get a service level agreement, and agreement that we own it. If we want they’ll ensure it’s only hosted in the EU.

Also Study Planner – currently highly valued component of the course – but structured content could go there too. Core course content on the VLE versus Google Apps – doesn’t gain us a lot to move.

Another key question: what if the students already have a GMail account? Can they link that to the account they get from us. Likely to be very confusing for students – we are already confused about that too. Not clear whether they can invite just anyone to see their documents, or just people with a Gmail account, or just people within Needs to be bottomed out. Of our current students’ preferred email addresses, about 13,000 are with Google Mail, 20,000 on GMail – though these figures may be suspect.

Current retention-related work tracking people’s activity (or lack!) on Moodle, and looking for patterns that suggest student is likely to drop out, and targetting them for interventions to help – also drawing on other data about the student we hold. Want to ensure we don’t lose this with the shift to Google Apps – this is key to helping to support students.

Portsmouth are already using it for an ePortfolio. Not sure what’s being done on the teaching and learning front versus the personal use elsewhere; interesting to benchmark that. Helpdesk will need to be up on this too – issue of funding and support. To start with we’ll be rolling out personal use; will become more core teaching and learning facility over time, and the support will need to reflect that.

Plenary feedback summary: There are lots of things to worry about! But also lots of potential.

Lots of stuff around docs.

Practical Session

We all hammered on a single spreadsheet that Patrick McAndrew shared with us:

It turns out to be not great for handling lots of people editing a single spreadsheet cell simultaneously. But not bad actually – it has a concept of revisions which lets you rollback inadvertent deletions, and can enable merging. Although the timestamps are a bit strange – they’re West Coast US time! (We’re all GMT here.) Almost certainly because Patrick (the document owner) hasn’t set his preferred timezone in his Google account.

Can you lock things down? E.g. freeze things at a particular point of time. Needed for exams/assignments. The versioning functionality might do some of that; and you can unshare documents if you’re the owner.

The forms functionality makes this a lot better for everyone submitting work – you share the form, and people’s responses all come in to a single spreadsheet.

Potential projects

Interesting things to pursue: feedback from students, and ALs. (By creating forms which you share – whether centrally, or by tutors, or students themselves.) Very exciting potential, but need to make sure we have the protections in the existing system.

  • Replacing Moodle altogether! Not perhaps practical in the short term. But it’s not inconceivable.
  • Is Google evil? What about OU students in China? OU’s relationship with China and Chinese universities?
  • Another new route for plagiarism! Volume of checks may increase as a minimum.
  • A fantasy course: students assembling their own course. An assessment nightmare, but a portfolio approach might be the answer.
  • Revising the course design process – more agile. Easier to feed through updates.
  • Impact on rewriting guides, links, URLs and so on
  • Personal life versus OU stuff issues
  • The whole experience for students – Openlearn, course websites, subject websites, Student Home, etc etc – it needs an overview. Tension between the Google/online world where some students are happily resident already, versus students who want to study in much more traditional ways (more your digital tourists). And basic skills assumption – we’re asking more than just print-based reading and writing with these tools. And digital xenophobes are probably over-represented in our student body – and digital skeptics.
  • The old collaborative assessment problem/challenge/opportunity looms large here. How you give individual marks for group work is far from a new question, but these tools are ‘born collaborative’ and so make collaboration much easier and more natural.

Underlying issue: how much do we (IET, LIO etc) work on these issues in advance, versus how much do we do by tracking what the faculties do as it becomes available.

There are (at least) two systems we will run: one staff-focused to explore, with the full toolset. The other is the student area, which will be more restricted in terms of what it’ll do (to what we’ve decided to roll out to them). Other Google technologies will fold in to the Apps bundle over time; so we’ll need to track those as they come down the line. Also managing expectations.

Big point: let’s not keep going on about the difficulties – there are lots of huge benefits and advantages here, that are very important. So, for instance, students don’t need to worry about backups any more – if their laptop dies just before an assignment, it’s still there online. It’s also very easy to use, much simplified compared to full office software. Also could use it on work machines where they may not be allowed to use OU/related software, but can use web-based stuff – or from public libraries or wherever.

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

15 thoughts on “Google Apps for Education”

  1. I disagree with the statement: “do we still need a VLE? In the medium term perhaps not”.

    The following paragraphs you write rather make the the case for me. All the OU specific procedural things about courses, like tutor groups, and an efficient system for publishing content. All the stuff the eTMA system does about extracting a proportion of assignments for double-marking. That is exactly the job of a VLE.

    It is similar to asking “Since we have the VLE, do we still need to print books etc.” Well, there too, the answer is still yes we need to, but less so than before.

    You should also note that Moodle 2.0 (about to go beta) already has ‘Save to portfolio’, where portfolio can mean any number of things, including Google Docs and Mahara. It also has ‘Submit my assignment from …’ where … can be many things, including Upload from my hard disc, and Google Docs. I think that is the correct model.

    Finally, see also my Hall of residence / Lecture room analogy from:

  2. Not had time to read this through properly (need to dash for a boat), and apols for not making session today (no-one invited me;-) but FYI:

    – my dept already has an experimental departmental website built using Google Sites ( )

    – we’ve already used Google forms to provide an informal questionnaire in an OU course (?T209) and as ‘no need to log in to review results’ workaround, demonstrated how to create custom reports:

  3. Some disconnected comments on “Potential projects”
    “Is Google evil?” Well possibly, but isn’t the point that concentrating on only one provider is inherently risky? Same goes for the VLE of course.
    “A fantasy course: students assembling their own course.” It’s been done at the OU (by Darrel Ince) though in the end he seems to have decided to turn it into a book rather than a continuing course.
    “Another new route for plagiarism”. Why is it a new one? Students can (and do) use Google Docs already, for legitimate and dubious purposes.
    “Revising course design process” More agile is good, but it costs (in people’s time). Making it easy to update moves costs to the part of our operations that’s already most expensive in people’s time. How and when do we decide not to update when the update will be a clear improvement, but not a big one, when it’s trivially easy to do, but it will take a week of an academic’s time that we can’t afford (in opportunity cost terms). Not a new problem with Google Apps of course!
    “Student experience”. Yes, certainly does need an overview. The OU has a group (I’m on it) that’s supposed to do just that but it hasn’t worked well (long story). But we know alarmingly little (imho) on how students actually interact with the stuff we already have (online, print, other old-fashioned media, you name it), and we never did; we don’t know enough about the range of different learning styles out there, where they come from, how they relate to the way we present things, how students creatively invent workrounds for all the hoops we make them jump through. In short, we have an illusion of control over the student experience that’s utterly misleading (to us), and this isn’t going to change that radically; it’s us that has to change, not the availability of Google Apps.

  4. @kevin said ““Student experience”. Y… But we know alarmingly little (imho) on how students actually interact with the stuff we already have (online, print, other old-fashioned media, you name it), and we never did”

    The way stats appear to be evolving in Moodle suggests tracking of individual students so we can raise alerts eg if a student hasn’t logged in or appears not to be engaging.

    I still think that there is value in also monitoring the behaviour of an online course just as if it was any other website, trying to identify any issues with the way it operates as a website. Of course, making changes to web design on the basis of “just” improving user experience will also be v expensive ito LTS time and likely not to be perceived as a priority. See for example:

  5. I agree with the statement: ‘do we still need a VLE? In the medium term perhaps not’. If by VLE you mean, ‘purpose-built, single-system VLE’.

    Our students dislike moodle, on the whole. Rightly or wrongly, most see only a glorified course website with poorly-designed add-ons that are better found elsewhere (like google apps). Maybe that’s just our implementation, but…

    Don’t get me wrong – I like moodle just as I’m hard-wired to like anything free and OS. Our students don’t, is all.

  6. So how about this announcement from the Goog today?

    “Tomorrow, we’re … launching new controls that enable administrators to help ensure corporate policy enforcement across a range of mobile devices.

    With this change, Google Apps Premier and Education Edition administrators will be able to manage their users’ iPhone, Nokia E series and Windows Mobile devices right from the Google Apps administrative control panel, without deploying any additional software or having to manage dedicated enterprise mobile servers.

    These new mobile device management capabilities will allow administrators to:
    # Remotely wipe all data from lost or stolen mobile devices
    # Lock idle devices after a period of inactivity
    # Require a device password on each phone
    # Set minimum lengths for more secure passwords
    # Require passwords to include letters, numbers and punctuation

    These features will be accessible from the ‘Mobile’ tab under ‘Service Settings’ in the Google Apps control panel. Once a user starts syncing their devices with Google Apps, the domain administrator will be able to remotely wipe device data, right from the user settings page.”

  7. “Let a thousand flowers bloom?”. Yes! (I speak as a tutor here). FirstClass has indeed given tutors much freedom to teach creatively, and to connect with each other. Moodle will not emulate that richness of functionality, and (IMHO) is likely to limit tutor creativity as a result. Google Apps might help to provide an outlet for this creativity. Yes, technical support may become more complex as a result. However, my (perhaps optimistic) prediction is that self-supporting communities will emerge, as they have in FirstClass. some of this will be spontaneous, some will need nurturing, but they will ultimately provide much of the support needed.
    Personally, I would like to see some brave decisions made by OU central on this. Yes! Let the tutors in immediately. Let a thousand flowers bloom; we will water them! The university will be rewarded in the form of a (yet more) motivated, innovative and savvy body of teaching staff.

  8. @Michael Penman We aleady don’t have a single-system VLE. It is a combination of StudentHome, Moodle, eTMA system, Library systems, … – but we try to make that invisible to students.

    On what do you base your statement “Our students dislike moodle, on the whole.” I think the situation is more, as Tony Hurst puts it “we know alarmingly little (imho) on how students actually interact with the stuff we already have,” so please share whatever information you have.

    @paulbrichardson Do you know about ? Have you tried it?

    1. @Tim The hundreds of records we put on voice have a parallel text on the phone we have no space for on voice. We write, ‘student could not use etma system’, ‘student could not use assessment calculator’, ‘student cannot find/use TGF’, ‘student did not know about course computing req’ and thousands of other things. Often what we hear from the student includes a statement of disatisfaction with a. the Uni going more online, b. the complexity of the online systems or c. the moodle/etma/FC student interface specifically.

      I predict overwhelming but quiet support for the Google move, and tiny but loud dissatisfaction.

  9. @tim I didn’t say that – I was quoting @kevin; what I *was* saying that doing the Moodle stats is all well and good, but imho we should be *also* be looking at Moodle as if it was any old website, and also running trad web stats on it to help us improve it as a website, understand how it functions as a website, etc.

    1. @tony Yes, I very much agree with that, but we also need to look further than both these, I think. Crudely, the web and Moodle stats can tell us a lot (that we didn’t know before) on /what/ students are doing, but they aren’t so good at telling us /why/ they are doing it, and this isn’t a situation where our only possible interaction with the users is counting and measuring what they do on the site. (I mean, we can ask them, or some of them anyway.)

  10. Interesting post and blog as well. We’re a Google Apps Education consultancy based in Prague and just a quick follow up point on your possible future project to replace Moodle. We have developed a solution in Google Apps to do a course management solution using Google Sites and Groups and we successfully implemented it in two Universities, replacing the existing Course Management Systems. Both were smaller private Colleges and to do so in an organisation like OU would present different challenges but more than happy to have a chat about it any time.

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