Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Google Apps, Video, Sites, Reader and Gears

We've trialled Google Apps for one of our Horizon Projects at school recently. Our projects run for four weeks and over this time our students explore the K-12 2009 Horizon Report and work with a number of outside experts in design and education to design a school for the future.

One of our motivations for setting up our own Google Apps domain rather than allow individual students to set up their own Google Docs account was to make life easier for students and teachers in collaboration and communicating. From this basis, Google Apps is quite good. It allows simple collaboration and sharing of documents well. The ability to upload Office documents is good. Unfortunately it doesn't allow sharing of Acrobat documents in an easy way, but this too can be done if you are prepared to spend the time typing individual email addresses. To date, haven't found a solution to publishing in foreign languages - haven't looked that hard, but if anyone reads this and has a solution, then please let me know!

Perhaps two of the unheralded features of Google Apps are Google Sites and Google Video. Google Sites gives you an excellent tool for building web sites, similar in some ways to the likes of Wikispaces. It integrates well with YouTube (as you'd expect) and it is pretty simple for students to build a nice looking site without much help. Google Video as part of the Apps suite allows you to upload video of any length (up to 1 GB), and this gets over YouTube's 10 minute limit and Fliggo's 25 minute limit. We video our outside experts so that students and staff can look back at the presentations for information they may have missed - and several of the presentations are 45 minutes in length, so not having to break them up into 2 sections is a real bonus.

But using Google Apps has not been without difficulty. We have a pretty strong bandwidth available (supposedly), but at times with as few as 30 students connecting simultaneously to our Google Apps site, the response has been not much short of atrocious. As anyone teaching will know, letting kids loose on laptops when they have to wait minutes for relatively short documents to load is asking for trouble. Further investigation has involved our ISP and at present we still await the results of a number of trials which from where I sit seem to indicate that our bandwidth within NZ and across to Australia is OK, but we are missing out badly with traffic from the USA and Europe. We will certainly need to get more response to the desktop than that we have had till now if we are to seriously consider Google's cloud offering.

As an RSS aggregator or subscription reader, Google Reader is my tool of preference for a couple of reasons. Firstly it has a gadget for iGoogle making it easy to see what is new, and secondly, the ability to take it offline via Google Gears makes it easy to catch up on reading when away from a network - like we were last week when away on holiday in the motorhome. In the middle of nowhere (well, Waingaro Springs to be exact) there is no cell coverage and no wireless, but I was able to deal to 50 or so blogs that I was behind in once the kids were asleep.

Google Gears also makes it easy to read documents from some of the applications in Google Apps - most notably word processor docs. So, if you have student work shared in this manner you can read and comment back offline, and once reconnected, can synchronise back to the cloud and everything is as it should be. But Gears needs to offer more functionality in relation to creating new documents and editing existing ones, plus it would be good to have Blogger compatibility built in.

So, at this stage in our trials, its a big thumbs up for Google Sites and Reader, limited thumbs up for Google Docs and Gears. If we can resolve our bandwidth issues and Gears allows a little more interaction, then Docs will be useful contender for replacement of Office applications for students.

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