Thursday, September 17, 2015

Will I use Google Apps for Education in my teaching next year?

The campus finally seems positioned to roll out Google Apps for faculty and staff.  I am glad to see it.  The is a very good thing.  Even just the form tool that is associated with the Google Sheets and Google Drive could have a profound effect as it could be used to get early feedback from students.  (For example, see my post on The Grid Question Type.)

However, it is no panacea and I'm wondering if it is too little too late, especially with regard to what I currently do, which makes extensive use of Google tools, but the regular commercial kind.  Below I will illustrate with a variety of issues.

Students don't consistently use their campus email

Many students do use campus email but many other students use a commercial account (often gmail but sometimes something else) and simply forward campus email to the commercial account.  There are probably many reasons why a student would opt for the commercial account but let me list offer only two here that seem obvious to me.

(a)  Students want to use a lifetime email address, one that was good before they became students at the university and one that will be good after they graduate.

(b) Asian students, in particular, often want to use an "American name" on their account rather than the name as it appears in the class roster.  They can do this with a commercial account, but they can't do this with their campus email.

If a good fraction of the students are not using campus email regularly, it is an inconvenience to force them to use it for access to Google Apps.

What about open access to documents?

My preference is to make my files available to anyone on the planet who might be interested in looking at them.  Right now, I use the university's service for posting PowerPoint, PDF, and Excel files and I've had one reasonably successful experiment posting an audio file in MP4A format.  Ironically, I went to only after in using the commercial Google Docs (now Google Drive) I found that many students could not access the commercial version when they were logged in with their campus accounts.  So I'm wondering if the reverse is true.  If I used Google Apps for Education would the rest of the world be denied access to these documents?

This is an issue that doesn't seem to be on the radar of anyone else on campus, but it should be.  The campus has an outreach mission.  That mission would be much better served if the campus had a significant OER presence.  At a minimum, it should be that instructors have the option of placing their course documents in and open to the world container.  The LMS already offers a closed container for distributing course documents.

Admittedly, Web documents rather than downloadable files offer an improvement on collaboration possibilities, so Google Drive is attractive for students doing group work.  I don't make heavy reliance on that in my teaching, but other instructors might. My focus here is on the documents the instructor distributes to the class.   Box is a little clunky for this in that it is a multi-step process.  Upload the file, change it's access to allow anyone with the link access, then provide the link in a location where the students can find it.  But it is quite good thereafter and the preview function, particularly for PDF files, is good enough that download isn't necessary much of the time.

Blogger is not part of the Google Apps for Education Suite.

I don't know why Google does this, but my view is that Blogger is much more functional than Google Sites and as I have students blog under a class assigned alias, keeping a blogroll of their most recent posts in the sidebar of the class Web site, the students need access to some blogging software.  Truthfully, they could use the campus blogging service at, which is based on WordPress.  I have tested that enough to know the site owner can adjust the screen name to whatever that person wants.  But if part of the idea of Google Apps for Education is to offer an integrated set to tools, why isn't the blogging tool integrated in as well?

My further experimentation is facilitated by using commercial tools.

While my usage of technology in instruction has settled down a great deal, so this year's class site is functionally quite similar to last year's site, I'm always open to doing things better than I currently do or trying different wrinkles to get at functions I can see would be valuable in my own course.  In the past, for example, I've tried Scribd,,, and other external hosts for content.  I've got a bunch of video content at my ProfArvan YouTube channel.  (Note that each of these hosts readily makes content publicly available.)  In the past, before the YouTube service improved, I used for video.  So it seems an obvious proposition that even if a suite of tools is currently very attractive, it need not remain that way for very long.  There is simply no way for the campus to change and upgrade the tools it supports at the same rate that the market does.  I am reluctant to become too reliant on campus tools, just for that reason.

Let me wrap up.

As I was the one leading the campus edtech efforts ten years ago, I know all too well how difficult it is to get all instructors to use campus supported technology.  Many will.  Many others, however, will find it is not for them, for whatever reasons.  When I left CITES to go to the College of Business, I soon learned of a complaint from the MBA students, that their classes were in too many different environments with no obvious advantage (from their perspective) for any one particular environment.  It seemed instructor whim mattered, but at the expense of student convenience.  Partly for that reason and partly because at the time there wasn't enough resource to offer a college specific alternative, we standardized on Illinois Compass.  That created some momentum for standardization and even some of the reluctant faculty came on board eventually.

There was behind this decision some substantial effort put in place to encourage it.  I knew the environment quite well and was able to get my staff up to speed with it and gained them administrative access so they could do trouble shooting when necessary for college faculty.  That faculty would get helpful and friendly support for using the College recommended app but would be more on their own otherwise mattered for their use.  I don't recall a single faculty member at the time whom I would call an innovator with technology and there were only a very small number whom I would describe as early adopters.

Now I find I'm one or the other of those.  Several years ago I did try blogging with Moodle, for example, but didn't like it at all.  I much prefer letting my own taste dictate on these matters.  I know full well that means I must do my own trouble shooting and tech support much of the time.  So be it.

As a retiree, I know that it is unlikely for much of my practice to be embraced by full time faculty, since it is labor intensive and most instructors already have too much on their plates.  But at least what I do is out in the open, so if anyone did care to look they could.  If teaching innovation is to diffuse around campus, the majority adopters need to become aware of the novel practices.  Workshops mainly end up preaching to the choir.  Broader diffusion would be facilitated by having course sites open and then letting social networks do their thing.  That ideal might drive the choice of what the campus supports down the road and/or might eventually get the campus to give its imprimatur to the use of commercial tools that innovative faculty have deployed in an interesting way.  I'm not sure whether Google Apps for Education advances that ideal or if instead it fits into the same old closed container model.

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