Friday, 20 April 2012

Interview with David Read about the Google Teacher Academy

David Read, teacher and technology coordinator at the English Language Teaching Centre, recently attended the Google Teacher Academy in London. We decided to interview him about his experiences attending the conference.

You've just come back from the Google Teacher Academy UK - so, my first question is about the event itself. I wondered if you could give us a little bit of background on it?

I think it started four or five years ago in the US. Google decided to bring together 50+ technology-minded primary and secondary educators for a day and a half of workshops and sharing of ideas. They have several of these events in a year in different parts of the country. In 2010 (I think!) a teacher called Tom Barrett lobbied to have a UK-based conference and so in that year the first UK one took place. This year is the second one that's taken place in the UK. 

The welcome sign for this year's Google Teacher Academy

The application is a competitive one, you need to fill out an application and then submit a one-minute video to You Tube on a subject Google specifies. Mine was on Innovation in the Classroom and you can see it here (I'm not a great video editor so it took me a long time!). I'm not quite sure how many people applied, I heard the number 600 but I'm not sure if that's accurate!

I was genuinely surprised to be chosen, firstly because I didn't think my video was that exciting - and I was blown away by some of the other entries - and secondly because in the application it states that they are looking for primary/secondary school educators rather than higher education. However, I put in the application and was selected. It turned out that I was the only person from higher education at the event, though I suspect I was the only one from HE who actually applied! 

In front of the famous logo at the Google offices in London

The participants didn't only come from the UK - about 50% did. Another 30% were from America and the rest were from a variety of other countries such as Mexico, Argentina and the Ukraine.

That's a great video - I can see why you were selected for the Google Teacher Academy! With so many ways that you're using Google Apps in your teaching already, what did you hope to gain from the event?

Well, I only use a few Google Apps extensively in the classroom, mainly Docs, Sites and Plus, but I was hoping to learn more about other apps such as Maps, Calendar and You Tube. Also, I was hoping to hear from the other participants about innovative ways they are using them in their classroom. Primary teachers especially have to be very creative to keep the attention of their students and I though t there might be some ideas I could adapt for my classes at the English Language Teaching Centre.

In session at the Google Teacher Academy (yes, it's very Mac heavy)

It must have been excellent to be around all those creative teachers - did you get what you hoped from them? What ideas will you be taking back to the classroom?

There was a whole host of great little tips and tricks for using Google Apps in the classroom: Tom Barrett did a session on using Google Maps to enable students to tell their own stories that was excellent. One aspect of Google Docs that I hadn't explored was the use of Forms and Spreadsheets for things like assigning quizzes and tests to students. Also, I had never heard of Scripts before: these are javascript programmes that can run in the background of a Google Spreadsheet to do things like automatically mark tests. A trainer called Jim Sill also opened my eyes up to using Google Calendar a lot more with both teachers and students. I'm going to start using it to organise appointment slots for student tutorials and for individual teacher training slots. 

Hangout out with Google+ Product Manager, Ronald Ho

On a more global level, a recurring theme of the conference was the idea of the 'flipped' classroom. A teacher there, James Sanders, described this best when he said that teachers should be 'curators of learning experiences rather than providers of direct instruction'. He uses tools like his class blog and You Tube to provide the traditional direct input and then his classroom is really an opportunity for students to be engaged in group and project work based on what they read/saw.

I know that this is an idea that is beginning to work its way into Higher Education and in fact I think it's even more relevant when dealing with the kind of motivated and sophisticated learners we have at the university.

I'm going to slowly integrate this idea over the next few terms to see what effect it has on the students. Some of the students at the ELTC come from quite traditional educational backgrounds, so it's something that will have to be done with sensitivity if it's going to be accepted.

It was just great being around all these teachers who are enthusiastic about the use of technology and to hear how they use it in their classrooms.

The flipped classroom is certainly a buzzword in education at the moment. Hearing first hand about people's experience of using that approach in their teaching must have been inspiring. Have you got plans for taking forward innovative practices like that and spreading them further across the university?

Definitely. Initially I need to try it out in my own classroom - I want to explore how it actually works with students before talking to other teachers about it. Then I hope I can use a variety of channels such as this blog, Uspace and also face to face sessions to let people know about it.

Yes, I think 'think big, start small' is a good way to start out with these things and we'll be more than happy to have updates on the blog too.

Thinking about channels of communication, I wondered whether your network of support has broadened as a result of attending the Google Teacher Academy, David? Is there any ongoing connection that you retain with it after the actual event? Or are people loosely forming into networks of Google educators?

Once you've finished the academy, you are then automatically registered on the Google Certified Teacher google group. This is an amazing resource of posts and questions from teachers who've attended these events, I've only had a quick look through it but it seems very active with lots of interesting discussions. And of course there's the more informal Twitter, Facebook and Google+ connections with the people I met there.

What a fantastic group of people to be able to tap into. Your on-tap source of inspiration!

I realise that this will sound very obvious, but it's thinking back to the fact that this was the Google Teacher Academy. I guess a lot of people might wonder about whether an academy which is put on by a technology company is more about the tech than the teaching? From what you're saying it sounds like you're talking about working with inspired and inspiring teachers, but I wonder what your impression was of the balance between technology and pedagogy?

No, it's a good question. I think the assumption that everyone has who's attending the Academy is that technology has a positive influence on learning so everything starts from there. But the focus is very much on technology as a tool to make learning more engaging and memorable rather than using it for its own sake. The presentation and sessions are all delivered by teachers and educators rather than tech specialists, so it's clearly focussed on how it can be used with students.

That's reassuring to hear. I suppose that the competitive selection of really great teachers to take part helps to ensure that the focus stays on the learning experience above all? It certainly sounds like you got a lot of out it!

So... one final question, if there's a great teacher at the University of Sheffield who's thinking 'this sounds like something I'd like to be involved with', would you recommend going for it and what advice would you give them so that they could make the most of the experience?

I'd certainly recommend it not only for the chance to connect with so many other teachers from around the world, but also because, well, you get to go to the Google offices in London. It's fascinating to see how they work and eat there...the food was amazing by the way!

Google-coloured muffins

The most important for actually getting there is to give yourself plenty of time to complete the application form and video. Don't skimp on either of those as I think they take them very seriously when processing the applications.

Thanks, David! We'll definitely look forward to seeing more of the outcomes of your Google experience. It sounds like a a terrific event and it's fantastic that you got one of those hard won places!

David Read interviewed by Sarah Horrigan, April 13th 2012

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