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.
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 .ac.uk 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 @my.open.ac.uk – will be kept? – four year agreement with Google)
- 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 my.open.ac.uk, 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 my.open.ac.uk 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 open.ac.uk. 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.
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.
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.
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