Google Apps planning for curriculum usage

Liveblog notes from an IET Technology Coffee Morning, 18 May 2011, in the Jennie Lee Labs.

Rhodri Thomas from the OU’s Learning Innovation Office (until the end of July) gave a talk titled “Google Apps – where next? Planning for curriculum usage”.

I last blogged seriously about this about a year ago, when I reported on what was on the radar. This is an update; at the moment it’s released to OU students on an opt-in basis only, but there are Plans for much more.

Excitingly, Rhodri tells me some of the stuff he’ll be talking around is under NDA, so this public report may well not be complete.

Liège / Luik / Lüttich

The slides are available in Google Docs – where else?

And the latest information is all on the Google Apps [OU only] part of the  Online Learning Systems website [OU only].

Overview (background) of the toolset

All held on the online learning systems website – overview sheet available too. All the new developments on what students will have access to will be on there.

There’s about 8,000 students on the system, increase at around 50/week. Plan was to invite targeted students – e.g. those with high demand on HelpDesk; also the FirstClass keen people, so confident can move on from that (FirstClass is to be finally decommissioned in June). About 95% of students don’t use our email.

We have email, PIM tools – and then the whole cloud storage, sharing, repository/co-creation activity becomes available.

There’s overview info for students, online computing guide, and in PC4Study.

Link to sign up is on the Student Computing Guide – so if you have a Student ID, can sign up for it straight away. Must be currently studying though.

After that, get to an OU Google Apps home page. Mail, Calendar, Documents and Sites are all available.

Mail – looks very much like standard Google Mail, but with an OU shield in the top-left where the Google logo would be, and no adverts to current students and staff. Email address Includes Chat (Google Talk) – have to have had some dialogue first, e.g. by email or invite. Can do a video chat too. Not a replacement for Elluminate – that’s good for very large groups, breakout rooms, interactive whiteboard – but excellent for self-organised activity.

Contacts, Tasks, and Calendar are all there but not currently actively supported by the OU. Calendar includes shared calendaring – will come back to this.

Documents – could be very interesting. Again, looks like standard Google Docs but with OU shield. (Get a dismissable message saying they prefer Chrome to IE!) Can use pretty much any file format, upload, and is available from whenever. Can upload e.g. a Word document, and then you can preview it, share with others on the system – e.g. other opted-in students. If you convert it to Google format after uploading, can edit it live in the browser. The Microsoft to Google transfer isn’t perfect – diagrams can’t transfer (easily) though, and there are other document fidelity issues – similar to transferring to e.g. LibreOffice. But once it’s there, can easily generate PDFs, etc.

Sharing interface – can choose people by name, nickname (self-chosen). If you’ve chosen someone before, or are in their immediate group, they should pop up earlier in the list. Can also put in mail list names (or will be able to)? Restricted to OU Google Apps domain – can’t share beyond that (at the moment). Must have a Google Account to edit.

You get a little blue bar showing you who else is editing it (if any), and get a pop-up chat with them too (real time, disappears). Also Discussions feature, can have a discussion about a document and have that saved alongside it. Not a replacement for forum/discussion tools but two different options.

Limit is 1 Gb for ‘proprietary formats’ – Word, Excel, etc – but appears to be unlimited if Google.

Not keen for students to upload e.g. MP3s here.

Can set documents up as templates too. This may take a bit of work for curriculum use – students have to go fetch the template and use it explicitly. Could be e.g. cover sheet for evidence in an eportfolio, etc. There are public templates too, including public ones; the OU ones are highlighted first.

Sites – template-driven way for simple web page creation. It’s pretty simple, just use templates, themes, styling – don’t need to know much about writing web pages.

We could create a template, make available, students can draw down and use it.

Probably most useful for students presenting material. If drafting, early part of creation, probably better to use Docs. A wiki (on Moodle) might be more appropriate if you need to track who contributed what and when.

Can’t share Sites with the whole world … yet. Some universities have it switched off altogether for reputational concerns. We’re going to try it anyway, and have alerting/monitoring systems.

Q: Tell us more about the reasons for restricting sharing Docs beyond the OU Google Apps domain.

Mainly now because it’s in pilot. Will need to consider about opening it up to the world. There are clear needs, e.g. sponsors on the course, and so on, and longer term students may want to demonstrate things beyond their course. Need to understand how to manage it, including inappropriate material etc.

Q: Tried sharing Google Docs with a Mac user, and he can’t get at it.

Browser issue might be part of it. Google Chrome is the best option (for using Google Apps), and is available on the Mac too. Then, Firefox and Safari, which are cross-platform. And then finally IE. But in terms of OU support, it runs the other way – IE supported, Firefox a bit, Chrome nowhere yet. But we may need to revise that.

Audience members: We can use it fine on a Mac.

Q: What about ALs?

ALs moved to Exchange to be the same as the staff. Couldn’t provide a Google account, trying to get to a state where staff are on same system as students but can identify them separately. University has decided to keep staff on Exchange (Microsoft/Outlook), not move to Google Mail. Google Apps will be available to all staff (including ALs) but they will not get Google Mail.

Q: Task functions – can they be shared, assigned, across teams?

Haven’t looked at this in depth but will do.

Next moves

Ongoing work includes extensive accessibility testing, and planning. Also Moodle 2.x work. Then more pilots, testing. Google has plans to improve accessibility of Google Apps. We plan to stay on an optional, opt-in basis, with alternates and reasonable adjustments we can make, so isn’t a block at the moment, but when we deploy this in curriculum, we must have the accessibility in place.

Q: Have module team keen to use Google Apps for collaboration (e.g. Tasks). Is it likely we can rely on the Apps as mandatory use, if there’s reservations about accessibility, for a 2012J presentation?

At the moment, and formal course requirements have to be through the VLE. If there are things that’d work more nicely through Google Apps, can do, but need an alternative – also to include students who don’t want Google. So can’t guarantee availability for core. Likely to persist like this until 2012, but will come back to this.

Is an issue for planning in the OU, where we need to see things well in advance – but Google moves in Internet-style updates so likely to change.


Core toolset – Mail, Calendar, Talk, Docs, Spreadsheets, Sites.

We’re not adopting Google Groups (watching brief) , or Video (now Google moving people off that on to YouTube), or Wave (being discontinued, but things migrating to other tools), or Blogger (have VLE blog already). Want to provide options, but not things where it’s in direct competition – so it’s clear what path to take to complete a task successfully.

But are using iGoogle (personalisable home page, part of DOULS project funded , Reader (TU100 adopting.

Not sure – Picasa Web Albums, YouTube. At the moment not clear how they sit with our agreement with Google, which say all data held in the EU or US under Safe Harbour – but those two are commercial and could be stored anywhere.


Released to students, want to get it to ALs. IT testing CIRCE feeding through to OU groups/groupings – to pick up tutor groups (TSA) and so on. Official route for tutors to contact group is via Camel. Google email gets forwarded to Exchange but few headaches.

Staff access – can’t be as early as we liked. For pilot activities, staff have to be manually added (not ideal), so restricted availability.

If tutor groups want to try Google Apps, approach through LIO mailbox. Testing it with an LTS group too.

Staff access is coming, but we have to wait a bit.

With the VLE2 / Moodle 2.x – released from September, but timetable TBA:

  • Setting up Google Apps activity, and Portfolio Activity Tool. Students have to find stuff in Google Apps, which can be fiddly – so could launch activity from Moodle, push documents through Google to their account, could simplify whole process. Will inherit student/tutor groups too, so don’t have to add people in to the sharing list, and so on. Could also initiate e.g. templates for filling in pro-formas.
  • Also embed a document in the VLE (as you can with a YouTube video at the moment) – use the VLE environment, drop in a Google Document at the appropriate place.
  • Want to have Google Calendar sync – we can export key events (assessment, tutorials), and it syncs to keep up to date with module website.
  • The study planner has events, which could become Tasks – e.g. a wiki completed by the end of the week.
  • Options to save information from the VLE – could save to Google Docs (replacing Save To MyStuff)
 iGoogle gadgets (DOULS project). Already some OU gadgets – OU Fact of the Day, Library catalogue, and so on. Coming up:
  •  Study Planner, with live links to key places
  • Assessment helper – prompts for key dates
  • Forum recommender – which forums you might be interested
  • Study buddy – find a peer to help you learn

Staff Development

Faculty briefings before Christmas – key people.

IET briefing.

There is a staff sandpit you can get access to for exploration – email for access.

TutorHome opt-in process, and online self-help. Online Computing Guide main point of contact, also WorkingOnline (has justifications for decisions, etc), and a Learn About guide in process.


Jonathan: Could be awfully useful in support for projects with multiple partners. Struggled with eRooms, this looks much better. Extending Google Apps that way?

Info records and management folks, there is a concern that systems are suborned for reasons not set up for [appropriation!] – people use it because it’s more flexible. University says anything that’s internal collaboration, anyone with OUCUs, formal collaboration that has to be logged formally as part of the corporate record, that’s eRooms until SharePoint comes along. Google we recognise has potential, but because is supported by Learning systems teams, has that focus. Once you have an account can do what you like – although not having email will hamper some of that activity. For editing purposes, would need users to have Google Account, and also not available outside the OU domain until later.

Someone: I work on Openings. Guidance on document sharing for students? Blurred between collusion and sharing.

Has come up with other module teams. Plagiarism. Use structures already. If formal activity, use VLE tools with monitoring in place – will be more visible in Moodle 2 – if you need individual tracking of contributions. They could already self-organise to use something else collaboratively already. When documents are returned, should run through same plagiarism checks when submitted to eTMA system.

Someone: Our students can do hard-copy TMAs. Anything in the guidance to remind them?

Is a point in the FAQs, but could draw it out. Will work with you on Openings particularly.

Someone2: For staff, will be first to student-facing staff, then all?

I don’t have a desire to constrain it. At the moment, is only current students can sign up; IT may request that same process. Some people are quite concerned about misuse of Google. If there’s formal collaboration, should be eRooms and Sharepoint. Could try it and see if it lets you! Can’t say more at this point.

Someone3: Staff development – any training planned for staff, from IET/LTS, or faculties to organise?

Will follow Learning Systems. Set up in IET workspace as a trial. Keen to talk to groupings about needs. At the moment, it’s self-help with a bit of backup for students, will be similar for staff. Will be step-by-step, unlikely to be large formal training – unless requested widely.

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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.

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