Monday, June 29, 2009

Free Collaborative Platforms for Teachers: Part 1 - Google Apps

Google Apps Education Edition is a free suite of hosted communication & collaboration applications specifically geared at schools (universities and K-12).

If a school board does not want to, or is unwilling to, invest in Google apps for education, a teacher can still easily integrate all of the features offered simply by creating Google accounts for all students / participants: a Google account offers a vast array of collaborative tools such as Docs (excel, presentation, doc, and forms), Notebook, Picasa web albums, allowing users to share documents in real-time. In addition, Google docs offers a form of versioning, or version control, which ensures all 'participation' gets captured: Docs' version control is called Revision History and is available under the File tab of the doc you happen to be working on. While the version control is not as sophisticated as certain wiki apps or enterprise services such as SharePoint, it works and allows large groups to manage collaborative projects and fairly capture who did what.

One thing to be aware of is that working with Google Docs has a very different feel from working with a desktop Office application suite such as Microsoft Office. It's much more "raw" in terms of the formatting offered, but they have smartly designed these docs to capture most of the common formatting standards and remain light-weight, so you experience very little "screen freeze" in Google Docs. A really important design feature given the context of real-time collaboration.

A couple of other Google tools to keep in mind for collaborative projects are Blogger and Google Talk. Many educators and schools are traditionally nervous about using public facing blog software, such a Blogger, because of the privacy and security issues related to the possibility of sensitive student or school information being made public. However, you can password protect Blogger and use it as a secure platform to engage students in longer, staged projects, such as journals. And keep in mind that the teacher can create all the Blogs and permissions right from their account, giving them the ability to filter and manage any misuse.

Google Talk is Google's IM tool and the perfect accompaniment to collaborating in real-time with all the other tools. It has become even more attractive with the addition of video and audio chat.

User Level: Junior High+
It would make very little sense to introduce Google apps to a classroom that is pre-junior high. In fact, I would say this platform and all its tools are best aimed at a high school and post-secondary school crowd.

Product Features: Good to Excellent
I rate all the available features in Google apps as good to excellent. The key features are product integration, document migration, and ease of use. The ability to save a doc in a word compatible format eliminates any worry about limiting one's arena of use. The range of products is immense, and we can now integrate Google Tasks with Google Calendar, a great feature for students to learn the value of simple project management.

And while Google docs' formatting may be a little raw by traditional desktop standards, its ease of use easily makes up for what's lacking in terms of document richness.

Any Complaints?
Over the last 6 months I've experienced some disruptions to the service that have caused me to lose some work: this happened more-often-than-not in Notebook, and some innate bugginess may explain why they've discontinued support of this product.