1:1: Starting Google Docs

October 4, 2009

Last week, with our wifi internet now working more reliably, I introduced my class to google docs.

I had originally wanted to set up google apps for education across our school domain, but as this is something we have to apply for, and possibly negotiate with the local authority about, I took the plunge and installed the free version across the domain I bought for our class website. This was a fairly straightforward process, and anyone who is technically capable of buying a domain and setting up a website should find it easy, and there are plenty of tutorials around.

Once this was done I logged in and set up a user name for every child in my class. I was going to do this for the whole of year 4, but the standard edition of google apps only allows for 50 users. Therefore, I am going to trial it and possibly set up another domain for the other class at a later date. Google make it easy to set up usernames, as you can make a spreadsheet of all the pupils names, desired usernames and passwords, and upload it as a csv file. Instructions and a video here.

I put a link to our google docs on our class website, so the pupils can just click through, log in and have access to their documents from anywhere.Picture 3

First Session

In this session I had planned to get the class to log in to google docs, and complete some straightforward history work to get them used to using it.I began by introducing google docs to them and explaining they would all be given their own account. Having seen me using google docs for most of my work, including shared writing with the class on the board, some of them recognised it and were excited to have the chance to use something I obviously relied on.

As it happened, getting them all in was more difficult than I had imagined. The first problem we had was that they are not used to the exact nature of usernames, and despite me impressing upon them exactly how their usernames were formed, and the need for lowercase and no spaces, lots of them didn’t grasp this at first.

The next was passwords. Using the csv file I had set all their passwords to ‘password’, and in the google control panel I had specified that they must change their password at first login. The difficulties here were that many of them took ages to decide on a password, and then had great difficulty completing both the ‘password’ and ‘confirm’ boxes so they actually matched! In hindsight I think it would have been better to have had a previous lesson in which we discussed how to think of a password, and then collected their chosen passwords in a more low tech way (paper). I could then have input these passwords in the control panel, and much time and frustration would have been saved during the lesson.

This issue was further compounded by the need to complete two ‘captcha‘ tests. Probably shortsighted of me, but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult an 8 year old reader with limited typing skills would find these!Picture 4

Eventually we got there, but with not enough time to attempt the work I had planned, so I asked them to write a short passage about anything they were interested in, and showed them how to ‘hand it in’ using the ‘sharing’ tab to share it with me. I showed them how to do this once, in a hurried way, before they went to assembly, but 21 out of the 28 present managed to share it straight away. The class are very good at following procedures on the computer!I was also able to see in realtime who had managed to hand in my work by opening our docs page on my iPhone, and quickly address any issues with those who had not.

What I found interesting was that I explained this process in terms of ‘handing in’ the work, but noticed that two of the girls had immediately decided to share their writing with each other. Looking at what they had written this was not a mistake, as they had both completed ‘My best friend’ passages about each other.Picture 5

That whole process took us most of an afternoon (partly due to the ongoing battle with wifi connectivity), but I think it was worth it to get them set up with such a powerful tool. For some reason a couple of our laptops are refusing to load the google docs page, but I am hoping a reinstall of firefox will solve that. Any ideas as to why this is happening would be much appreciated.

Second session

The following day I decided to do a session on the history work I had previously planned. I set up a google doc with some instructions, and a number of facts I had copied from websites about Henry VIII. We are working on interpreting internet sources, and not just copying text they do not understand, so to see how they would get on with docs I just asked them to write these passages out in their own words, choosing the facts they thought were most important.

To get this out to them I shared the document so it could be viewed (but not edited) by anyone on the domain. I then tweeted out a link to it on our ‘4oqlinks’ twitter account, which is then fed to our class homepage (my normal method of distributing links). Picture 2

I then showed the class how to click on the link to go to the doc, and save their own copy of the file to work on. Again they were proficient at this, the only problem I found was the confusion between the ‘file’ menu in firefox, and the one in docs itself. Picture 6Using this method I could easily distribute differentiated work, just by tweeting different links with the name of the table group I want to access that work.

The class then completed the work, and again shared it with me. We had a few accidents where they managed to highlight and delete the examples and questions in the doc, but with a bit more experience I think they will be proficient enough for this not to happen.

The weekend

One of the great advantages of google docs, as well as the easy sharing and collaboration, is the fact the class can access their documents from anywhere. I did not expect this to happen so soon, but on Saturday morning I received notifications that three members of my class had logged in and completed some completely undirected work on what they knew about Henry VIII (our current history topic). I was really pleased with this, as it shows this tool is allowing us to achieve our aim of inspiring children to take responsibility for their own learning, and follow their own interests in their school work.

In conclusion I am very pleased with what we have achieved in just two afternoons of using google docs. I can’t wait to get the children used to using this as one of their regular tools, and especially the potential for collaboration it affords. I really think it is going to be a useful tool in achieving our school aim of a negotiated curriculum.

Just waiting for google wave to be activated on our domain….

Advertisements

Some tools and tricks I swear by

August 2, 2009

People are often asking what tools and apps I am  using, and I usually struggle to remember. Therefore, I thought I would create a run down of a selection of tools that are essential to me. Rather than a simple list I have tried to add some value by way of some tips and tricks I have discovered to get more out of these tools…

Dropbox

This is a killer application/web service for synchronizing files, a real lifesaver if you use multiple computers/laptops. You sign up for an account, install a small service program and it creates a folder on your computer the contents of which are uploaded to their server and instantly synchronized to any other computer you have set up with that account. You can also access them from anywhere using a web browser, which also works great on the iPhone (an app is also on the way).

It makes problems knowing which computer has the latest version of a file a thing of the past, and the fact you can access all the files online or offline is really useful. You can also share folders with others which was a lifesaver for sharing hard to track down reading on my PGCE course.

Get it here, or if you want a little extra free storage than the stock 2GB  you can sign up using my affiliate link.

Trick > Sync Apps Preferences and Data

If your on a Mac you can also use it to keep applications synced. Most apps store their data in your Home library folder (eg Address Book is in /Users/[User_Name]/Library/Application Support/AddressBook/ ). If you move this folder to your dropbox, then create a symbolic link to this moved folder in it’s original location on all the computers then you can keep the app synced across all your machines.

For example to sync your address book, move the /Users/[User_Name]/Library/Application Support/AddressBook/ folder to /Users/[User_Name]/Dropbox/AddressBook/ .

Then open a terminal and type:

‘cd ~/Library/Application\ Support/’

and then ‘ln -s ~/Dropbox/AddressBook AddressBook’.

This creates a shortcut where Address Book is looking for it’s files which points to the folder in your dropbox. On your other machines delete the original AddressBook folder, and repeat the terminal commands. Address Book files are now synced across all your machines.

Google Reader

I watch an awful lots of blogs, and the only way I have found to keep track of them all is using Google reader. Instead of visiting each of the sites you want to keep track of to see if there are new posts, Google Reader aggregates all of them into one place, showing you when they have new articles and posts. All you need to do is Sign up to Google Reader, then find the link to the ‘RSS feed’ on the sites you want to follow. If you click on this link and choose to open it with Google Reader then it will be imported and you will never have to check the site for updates again!

Trick > Share items to Twitter.

Every article on Google Reader has a ‘Share’ button at the bottom. when you click this the article is published to your own personal ‘Shared’ page, so you can share interesting articles. This page is available at http://www.google.com/reader/shared/%5BYourUserName%5D/

However, this page also has it’s own Atom (Similar to RSS) feed. If you sign up to a service like Twitterfeed, you can get any RSS or Atom feed automatically tweeted and shared with all your followers. Just copy the link to the Atom feed, and paste it into this service. Now whenever I click the shared button on an article I am reading it is automatically tweeted- a much more useful way of sharing than your public shared page. Note there is a delay on this, it checks feeds every half hour.

Calendars

I am a big fan of iCal on the Mac, and the calendar on my iPhone is constantly in use to keep me organised. I also like to be able to access my calendar on a large screen wherever I am, so I also use Google Calendar. I use a variety of methods to keep all of these different solutions in sync.

Firstly I use Spanning Sync installed on all my Macs which synchronizes my iCal calendars to Google Calendar. This is an inexpensive and powerful program which is linked to your Google account so you can install it on as many Macs as you want. I then use Google Calendar Sync to keep these calendars synchronized with my iPhone. This might take a bit of setting up, but it is far cheaper than a MobileMe account from Apple, and Google Calendar is way better than their online application.

Google Docs & Gears

Google Docs is (are?) brilliant. Not only is it a complete office suite for free, it makes your documents available from any computer with a web browser. The collaboration features are also amazing, and put an end to having email chains with multiple copies of files with different revisions having to be collated. Everyone can simply work on the same Google Doc, and all the revisions are kept track of in one place.

However, it does present a problem if you use a laptop which is not always online, as you have to access your office suite through the net. Step in Google Gears, which is an extension for your web browser which allows it to synchronize your Google Docs so that you can work on them even without an internet connection. Just install Gears, log in to Docs, select ‘offline’ from the top right and it will guide you through the quick set up.  It can even allow you to read and send your GMail when you are offline.

Trick > New Docs Offline

One thing that does annoy me is that Gears won’t let you create a new document when you are offline, only edit existing ones. A trick I picked up (I can’t remember where from!) to get around this is to create lots of blank documents when you are online. Name them ‘Blank Doc 1, 2’ etc. Then when you are offline and want to start a new document, simply open one of these blank documents and get started.

I hope these tricks and examples are useful to some people, and I am always looking for more tricks like these so let me know if you have any to share..