Schools can use cloud computing to create a bustling virtual learning environment for next to no cost, says Ian Addison...
You may have seen adverts for the cloud already. You may have heard it mentioned at meetings and wondered what it was all about. In a nutshell, it is about having tools – such as spreadsheets, word processing documents and website design applications – available to you wherever you are, providing you’re connected to the internet. This could be in your office, at home or on your phone while on the bus. Now, many people are not ready to move everything to the cloud just yet, but the tools are there to help increase productivity and enhance collaboration between staff and students.
Google produce tools such as Calendar, Docs and Sites that allow users to create content online and then share it with others. The term ‘Google Apps’ simply refers to all of these tools when packaged together under one roof. Schools can sign-up for Google Apps and be upgraded to the education account for free. This means all pupils can create websites, email each other and organise their diaries if they so wish. The school can decide which tools are turned on for different groups of users too; so, for example, Y2 might not have email available to them, but email is activated when the children have been taught how to use it sensibly in Y3.
One thing to be aware of is that Google Apps is not aimed at children, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Our children prefer to use a ‘grownup’ solution and they manage to find their way around quite quickly and easily. So what are the main tools that are part of Google Apps?
DOCS This can be used to create documents, spreadsheets or presentations online. These can then be shared with other users within the school to make them collaborative. Imagine having a group of children designing a presentation together, all editing and accessing the same document at the same time, which can then be published on their website.
SITES The children can create their own websites for a topic, or as part of a portfolio of learning. These sites can be viewed privately by the children and their teacher or they can be shared with the whole school or the world, the choice is there. This gives children a great way of writing for an audience.
CALENDAR Calendars can be shared with many users to publish diary dates and events. This could be for school events, staff meetings or upcoming homework reminders. These calendars can also be published elsewhere, such as the school website.
MAIL The ability to have a full email service provided by Gmail. Each user gets 25GB of storage (which is a lot). The administrator can also choose to let users have full email access or just allow messages to be sent across the domain to other school users, rather than out to the public. Using Mail also provides many opportunities to discuss children’s online footprint and digital safety.
There are many other tools that can be used, such as Google Maps or Picasa, but the core tools are enough to get started with.
These can be used as an alternative to other software, but the ability to use Docs online and collaborate with others can open up many possibilities. The documents can also be published on the internet or embedded within a website or a blog to share with a much wider audience.
As documents are collaborative, children could share their writing with another child who can either edit in a different colour or use the ‘comment’ feature to review the content. They could highlight good vocabulary or interesting sentence starters.
Create a document that is shared between two children so they can collaborate on a story. They could sit next to each other and discuss their story as they go along, or use the built-in chat feature to collaborate online. As this is internet-based, they could continue their story at home if they wished.
When collecting data, such as pulse rate, spreadsheets are a great way of working together. Create a sheet and share it with the class. As different groups of children finish collecting their results, they simply add their data to the sheet and the results will be updated, live, for the whole class. The children can then create a copy of this document and add their own graphs and analysis without having 30 graphs cluttering the main document.
Google Forms are a great way of writing simple surveys. The data from these can be accessed quickly and then children can present this information however they need to. Forms can also be embedded into blogs or websites to make it easier for others to find and complete the questions.
Documents or writing frames can be saved into the Template Gallery for others to access later without overwriting the original. This becomes useful for when the children have to do a similar task regularly, such as writing a book review.
There are lots of different ways in which Google Docs can be used. Many of these won’t be far removed from how you are alreay using office-based software in the classroom, but there are a few distinct differences to keep in mind.
First, the ability to collaborate is very powerful and you will find that children enjoy sharing their work with others. Also, the ability to create and access their work online means pupils can produce more at home.
So why not give it a go? It costs just a few pounds to get started and there are huge benefits in terms of productivity for staff, through to enjoyment and collaboration for pupils.
Sites is one of the simplest, yet most powerful, tools in the Google Apps suite. It can be used to create a website in under a minute. And with the help of ready-made (by the school) templates, it presents an excellent presentation tool.
We used Sites when looking at the local area. The children went for a walk in the village armed with cameras and microphones to capture the essence of their environment. Back in school, pupils worked in small groups to compile websites that showcased their village. You can see an example here - http://bit.ly/wchase. These were created by Y3 children working together to edit and crop images, upload sound files and embed content such as maps and games related to their site. Yes, there are flaws. But these are eight year-olds who have created and published their own websites.