So, my district has made the decision to switch to Google Apps for Education. I'm excited about the switch, and I've actually already moved to this platform, so I wanted to talk about this a little. We're not exactly blazing trails here - there are lots of districts who have already been using GAFE for years, including some close to us in Chicagoland - but I think that lots of teachers still don't have this tool, or have it and don't use it, or don't like it, or don't trust it.
I have to say at the outset that I started using Gmail several years ago, back when accounts were offered by invitation only. I heard about the phantom browsing of email data, and how Google would use information from our email to decide what adwords to place on our pages. I made my peace with that. This is standard practice with so many sites now that it's almost unnoticeable. In fact, I've started to appreciate this kind of data collection with sites like Amazon. I don't always buy the books that Amazon suggests, but I often find copies of these books and learn a great deal from these recommendations. That never bothered me as much as I thought it would. And I've rarely had issues with my e-mail account. It just works.
From gmail, I began using Google Docs a few years ago. I enjoyed the simultaneous editing feature, and I really pushed hard for teachers at my school to start using this, even though it wasn't officially sanctioned, for less important work. I started using Drive only a few months ago, mostly because I had files in too many places and needed somewhere where I could put everything, or at least everything teaching-related.
Now, my e-mail and calendar data has been migrated to a new Google account managed by my district. I have uploaded most of my files on my school laptop to my new Google Drive. And I have tried to focus most of my work on Google Apps. I try to create new files in Docs instead of Word, and I try to share files with co-workers as much as possible.
So far, with about three weeks experience using GAFE, here are the things I like:
- Using the Chrome browser with a Google Apps account feels like I'm finally using the right set of tools for the right job. They work well together. Prior to this, I switched back and forth a lot between Safari and Firefox, depending on what I was doing, because sometimes one worked better than the other. Chrome just seems to work for everything now.
- I LOVE the document sharing feature. I LOVE the simultaneous collaboration. We have already noticed a big difference with tasks like note-taking during meetings or creating a plan together. For the most part, this has allowed more people to be involved in large-group tasks. It has also allowed us to jigsaw (or "divide and conquer") larger tasks into smaller pieces without having to re-assemble from the pieces later.
- Docs lacks some features, but it's simple and easy to follow. There aren't five or six different ways to change your page layout, there's only really one way.
- Chrome Apps and the "connect more apps" feature - which are really two different things but are related. I've added a lot of tools that I don't quite understand yet, but I've been playing around a lot with Voice Comments, some different calculator features, templates, and lots of other tools.
- It's kind of silly, but I like the huge amount of fonts available in Docs. Some of the names are odd (like not in a good way, such as "covered by your grace" - can't tell if it's trying to be ironic or actually making fun of religious zealots), but I like the variety and most of the cheeky names they have.
- It's a little overwhelming at first, but there are so many different ways to customize Gmail, and so many different tools, that it's like discovering the Internet over again.
And, so far, here are the things that I don't like:
- Random or arbitrary limits on storage, seemingly set only to extract more money from users. While I know that it will be (or already is?) something that can be modified, why are we given 25 gigabytes for mail but only 5 gigabytes for Drive?
- Some files don't work with Drive. The most noticeable file type right now is Keynote presentations. I started using Keynote a lot this year, and encouraged my students to do so too. Now, I have 40-50 Keynote presentations that need to be converted to PowerPoint so that they can be shown in Google Slides.
- I use a lot of short video, and I would love to be able to upload these files to Drive. But they take up a lot of space, aren't playable/streamable through our filter at school, and would take a long time to download from Drive even if I chose to upload them all and then download them to play them at school.
- Sometimes it seems like Google can be fickle about services they provide. Rumors swirl about Google Groups disappearing, for example. Some services are just not offered to GAFE users (like Blogger, for instance).
I'm sure I'll think of more to say about this as the summer progresses. I'm going to be helping some fellow teachers learn this new platform this summer, and that will help me think about what I like and don't like. I'd also like to do a bunch more research on what I can use this for. I have a couple of Chrome apps that I want to try out for creating animations. I'm still shaky with Forms, but I've used it a few times to great effect. And the whole world of Google+ seems really cool - though I'm not sure about all of what it does, and I still feel like I don't know how to navigate through it.