ALT-C 2011: Cloud Learning with Google Apps

In this post I'll pull together the key themes that emerged in our "Cloud Learning with Google Apps" workshop at the ALT-C 2011 conference.

I was pleased that we had some 70 attendees express an interest in this session, making it one of the most popular parallel sessions at this year's ALT-C. Unfortunately we only had seats for 50 people, so my apologies to those attendees who had to stand, sit on the floor etc!

Ross Mahon and Grainne Phelan from Google had already warmed up the ALT-C plenary audience with a five minute elevator pitch describing the key features of Google Apps and encouraging the community to engage with Google. This workshop followed up the elevator pitch, and gave ALT-C attendees the opportunity to both quiz Google and share details of their own educational use of the Google technology.

To kickstart the discussion, we had a a short video (embedded below) from Mark Allen of Ed in the Clouds. Mark's consultancy provides advice and assistance on cloud computing for schools. When watching the video, try to bear in mind that Mark's school pupils are the undergraduates of 2020. Will secondary and further/higher education live up to their expectations? I hope so!

With such a large group, it was always going to be difficult to give everyone that wanted to speak an opportunity. To help steer the conversation, we used a tool from Google that I think will be of pedagogical interest to those who have not previously encountered it - Google Moderator. With Moderator, people can submit topics for discussion and also vote on the submitted topics, as shown below:

And here are some of the most popular topics proposed by the ALT-C audience:

I was very pleased with the results of the crowdsourcing exercise via the Moderator tool, which we treated as topics for discussion rather than "questions for Google" per se. Here is a quick precis of the ALT-C workshop discussion and subsequent conversations:
  • Virtually everyone attending the workshop was using the Google tools in an institutional capacity
  • Most institutions represented were using Google services in teaching and learning
  • There was a high level of awareness of the consumer oriented tools (Gmail, Docs etc), but less around more advanced features such as Apps Script, the Apps Marketplace and APIs
  • Most attendees had at least a passing familiarity with the more well known Google tools, but were not aware of some recent developments such as the incorporation of Wave style discussions and co-editing in Google Docs, and the availability of educational extensions to Google Apps in the Apps Marketplace for Education
  • As an artifact of E-Learning historically often being conducted as a separate parallel activity from "mainstream" IT services, Learning Technologists often had limited access to Google APIs, reporting, etc - potentially having a significant limiting effect on the potential for embedding the Google technology in the curriculum
  • Nevertheless, Learning Technologists at institutions which have "Gone Google" had experienced significant interest in the Google tools from staff and students alike, and staff at institutions making this transition should find it beneficial to develop an in-depth knowledge of the Google services
  • Some institutions were uncomfortable about the pace of change and would prefer a more leisurely update cycle - Google have taken some steps in this direction via the Scheduled Release option for updates
  • Google's recent slimming down of its portfolio of products and services had resulted in some services that delegates valued being discontinued or deprecated - it was noted that the core Google Apps services were covered by an SLA and support agreement
William Florance from Google stated that he would like to collect together case studies around educational use of their tools, and will be holding a competition later this year to encourage people to share examples of what worked for them.

Delegates were particularly interested in two new technologies from Google:

Google+ (G+),  Google's new social network - with social networking extensions to most Google products also in the pipeline. We are looking forward to testing G+ integration with our Google Apps domains, hopefully this Autumn, and building upon the upcoming G+ API.

The presentation below gives some ideas about how G+ might be used in a classroom context. However, watch out: there seems to be a popular misconception that Circles in G+ can be used as "groups", in the same way that Google Groups can be sharing targets, mailing lists etc. In fact, Circles are personal to the person who creates them, and there is no way to share content with someone else's Circles or to see who someone else has in their Circles.

Chromebooks - Google's "thin client". Chromebooks run only the Chrome browser, on a stripped down Linux installation, with management via Google Apps. Whilst we tend to live on the Web nowadays, there are still a few native applications out there that people need to run once in a while - hence the integration of Citrix Receiver into Chrome, as shown in the demo video below.

I've blogged previously about this intriguing combination of lightweight operating system at the point of use coupled with virtualized legacy applications delivered over the Internet. It's worth noting here that there are other routes to this destination, e.g. the Citrix Receiver app is also available for Android and iPad, and Ericom have reimplemented the VMware View client as an HTML5 web app. Perhaps the post-PC era really is here?

For those involved in setting institutional strategy around IT and E-Learning, this is a very interesting development, and one that I shall return to in my IT strategy posts.

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.