Google Apps for Education: Challenging students and engaging them with non-institutional online learning tools

This brief post is a reflection of some of the concepts which emerged from the Higher York eLearning Network Conference Keynote by Professor Matthew Collins (University of York), titled ‘Low cost, low maintenance solution to¬†collaboration in education and research’, delivered on 4 June 2013.

Incorporating technologies and social networks within teaching practice

Google+ versus Facebook for student interaction online

The battle between Google’s own social network, Google+ (plus), and the largest social network, Facebook, is well documented. I have even discussed the pros and cons of each in previous blog posts (mainly pros of Google+ and cons of Facebook). However, after proclaiming its simplicity and well-thought out concepts, I have ditched Google+ from my online presence as it was simply duplication of effort with my other platforms (LinkedIn for Professional Networking, Facebook for Social Networking – most definitely not work and where the majority of my social contacts reside, Twitter for public engagement, keeping on top of trends and dissemination). Google+ didn’t have a new audience I wanted to interact with, or rather they were elsewhere.

At the University of York, we use Google Apps for Education, primarily for email, but potentially every student has a Google+ profile just waiting to be activated. Professor Collins has taken advantage of this to encourage students to set up their own Community Sites within Google+, in particular for a student-run seminar series. My previous investigations into non-institutional online spaces (see conference presentation on this [PDF]) has shown a tendency towards Facebook (due to my reasons above), so I was interested to see the rationale for using Google+.

Bringing value to the online space

One element which I think has contributed to students’ use of Google+ in Professor Collins’ case is his use of Google+ as his personal repository to collect articles of interest to him and collaborating with his research teams with the network. Students follow the lecturer’s ‘brain dump’. By sharing his daily working practice with others via the social network, students get an insight into academic life, current research trends and this in turn adds value to the social network as distinctive. This distinctiveness comes from being less ‘social’ than Facebook and also less ‘formal’ than the institutional VLE.

Students have also shown how they have used Google Drive as a repository themselves, collecting their own articles of interest, sharing and collaborating on documents. Possible copyright and licensing infringements aside, these students have demonstrated a shared workspace. Everyone having access to everyone else’s ring-binders of useful stuff. Whilst there have existed such mechanisms before, for example VLE-based blogs, Dropbox and, dare I say, email, perhaps the students in this case have latched onto the seamlessness of the Google provision because of our institutional ties.

Making in-class technology the norm

Throughout his modules, Professor Collins has used additional Google tools in class, for example: Google Fusion Tables to enable students to instantly visualise data or Google Docs to allow them to collaborate (or as he observed, compete) with each other in simple maths exercises with spread sheets (as well as providing Google Chromebooks to complete tasks). By bringing such tools and techniques into the class, without any formal training to the students, may seem to some (me) as particularly risky and possibly too challenging for the students and staff. There is a risk not just technically that you won’t have the wireless connection or devices to facilitate the activity (in which case the session is abandoned or hastily reworked), but also of students’ technical competences and confidence. I am still very much of the view that our students experience and confidence with IT should not be over-estimated, perhaps because I work in a non-science department. However, I do think that being able to adapt to different technology is a better skill to develop than learning specific ‘button-pressing’ sequences for specific software. What I think comes across from this case study is that making technology the accepted norm, rather than something the lecturer themselves has anxiety about, and bringing it without pomp or circumstance into a teaching session has a net effect on students’ confidence and willingness to engage with similar tools.

Drivers for student engagement with non-institutional online spaces

To summarise then, two possible drivers for student to engagement with non-institutional spaces may be: a) added value provided in that space by the lecturer with their own social networking and professional activities, and b) use of a system or brand with other facilities students have actively used as part of their course as normal process.

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