Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Using Google Apps for learning and teaching - an overview

Google logo

Photo Credit: Tiger Pixel via Compfight cc


From Apps Scripts to perform mail merge and use forms as quiz tools, through to the use of Google Sites to create a lightweight VLE, we’ve had a quite a few postings looking at the use of Google Apps over the last 18 months, and some of them in some depth. So in the run up to another new academic year, we thought we’d take a step back and take a bit of a general overview of how we can use these tools to support learning and teaching. I’ve been doing a few presentations on this recently so as well as this posting, 

I've done a recording of a few of these, which will enable me to illustrate some of the points below with some demos. The recording I’m using for this is available here

What are “Google Apps For Education”?

Firstly it;s probably worth making sure we know exactly what Apps we are talking about when we refer to the “Google Apps For Education”,  or GAFE Suite. The core apps included in these are

Docs (including text docs, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and forms)

These are the ones that are covered by the special agreement that universities, colleges and schools enter into with Google that govern certain aspects of data protection, intellectual property ownership and a few other factors - i.e. the sorts of things we would want to have in place if we were running these services in house, such as our VLE and web servers. It’s worth making this distinction as Google offer so many other services, such as YouTube, Google + and Blogger, and these are so easily accessible from our University accounts that they all appear to be part of the same thing, but there are important differences in the terms and conditions that govern their use, and that might make them unacceptable for “official” University use.

Before looking at some of the Apps more specifically, there are a few they all have in common, which we think make them suitable for supporting learning and teaching. Firstly, all the Apps above are based around an infrastructure that fosters collaborative working. Collaboration, where we work together to achieve a shared goal, is of course a hugely important element in learning. At University, as in life, people learn by constructing their own knowledge, and this is in part achieved by interacting and working with others.  Google Apps allow this very easily, and the way we have our Google domain set up at Sheffield means that this collaboration can take place amongst staff and students alike.  The Apps are also fairly easy to use, which means in many cases we can get on with what we want to do without the technology acting as a barrier. They are also web based, which largely means that they are easily accessible to anyone with a browser, without having to install any software, or worry about managing versions and incompatibilities.

Setting up appointment slots with Calendar

Whilst the Calendar App may not look like the sort of tools with which we can ascend the dizzy heights of social constructivism, there are a few features within it that can help in the administration of learning and teaching. One of these is the ability to create Appointment Slots. Appointment Slots are a specialised type of Calendar entry, which allow you designate time slots in which people can book to have appointments with you. You designate a chunk of your time, say 2- 4 on monday, allocate the length of the slots, and then Calendar creates the slots for you in a specific version of your Calendar. This has it’s own URL, which you can then distribute amongst your students, and so is ideal for arranging tutorial slots, supervision meetings etc, without having to have some kind of physical sign up sheet. Once an appointment with you has been booked, it creates an entry in both yours and your appointees’ calendars. As well as simplifying the booking procedure, colleagues who use this tell us that it also vastly improves attendance at tutorials. If this seems a bit abstract, it’s demonstrated in the recording at around 05.50.

Other things to bear in mind with the Calendar, is that that it can also be used to schedule access to resources as well as people. This could be rooms, items of equipment, lab apparatus etc. Calendar also greatly simplifies arranging meetings with people too. You can use it “manually” to visibly identify gaps in your colleagues’ calendars, or you can use the Suggested Times feature to go and hunt down times when a given list of people are available. So no more Doodle polls or typing in lists of availability to send to people in emails, which are of course totally out of date by the time they read them and reply…….

Real time collaboration using Docs

Collaboration proper becomes a lot more apparent when we start looking at using Google Docs. Google Docs are in fact subdivided into text Docs, Spreadsheets, Presentations and Drawings. They all do pretty much what you’d imagine from their titles. They also have several key features in common. They are all pretty simple to use, as they have focused on just those core features that you would use most of the time when using say the Microsoft equivalents. They are also all “cloud based”, which means all the work you do in them is normally stored on Google’s servers, not on your own computer. I find this particularly useful, as you never have to worry about copying your files onto a memory stick to take home with you - as long as you have an Internet connection and a relatively up to date browser, you can access the latest version of your work from anywhere. Being cloud based in this way, it also enables them to be so easily shared out with others for collaborative work. All you need to do is specify the email addresses of your collaborators and you’re in business (they have to have Google accounts though - whether privately, through work, school or University). You can collaborate with your colleagues both synchronously or asynchronously. When you do the former you see each other’s cursors on screen in different colours denoting where in the document they’re working.

Either way, what this crucially means is that you don’t have to email copies of document files round to your colleagues, and hope that everyone’s has got the discipline to make sure that they are storing and working on the latest versions of files. Even with Track Changes on in Word, this can be a nightmare, as can being the poor soul who has to make sense of collating all the changes back into one document. A useful safety net here is also the Revision History function, that stores incremental versions of the document as it is being changed. It also indicates each author’s contribution at any stage by different colored text. This can be particularly useful should you need to resolve any disputes about who has done what with your students.

These features lend themselves extremely well to supporting a myriad of collaborative exercises with your students, and are demonstrated in the recording between  11.30 and 25.15.  As an example, a class of students could e divided up into groups, with each group collaboratively writing a Doc about a sub-topic they are studying, similar to how a Wiki is constructed.. Other suggested uses for Docs could be for submitting draft essay plans that you can comment on for giving formative feedback, or for collaboratively authoring and commenting on PhD or other research supervision meetings. You're really only limited by your imagination at this point and there are many many sites on the web illustrating proposed ideas for their use.

Collecting Data with Google Forms

Forms, because of the way they capture data directly into a Google Spreadsheet, offer a very versatile learning tool. If students are tasked with collecting data or measurements in a lab or field class, the tutor could create a single Google form into which the students could add their data. This would populate a spreadsheet which can be shared by the whole class, so there’s no need for the tutor to collate data into a single repository. The process is so speedy this can be done in a classroom environment and the class’s data can be viewed immediately for analysis and interpretation.

Forms do not just have to be limited to conducting numerical data - they can also gather qualitative data. An approach I’ve tried a few times is to use Forms in a classroom setting to help collect work resulting from small group activities. Students were set a group exercise - in this case to design how the GLOMaker tool ( could be used to create an online heritage resource for presenting to the public. Rather than fill out their ideas on a Google form and then these could be viewed and discussed by the whole class in the plenary. The underlying spreadsheet was then shared out with the whole group afterwards giving them the capacity to go back and reflect on the whole group’s work

Forms can also be used to collect survey data for yours or your students’ research projects. This importantly eliminates the need to use external services such as Surveymonkey. Please remember though if you are collecting survey data from people that you  may need research ethics clearance, and you will need to adhere to Data Protection guidelines. A final attraction of forms is that their underlying Spreadsheets allow a very rapid summarising of your responses, in a combination of bar charts, pie charts and summaries of free text responses. The use of forms is demonstrated in the recording between 25.21  and 30.30

Website creation with Google Sites

Google Sites also present a huge range of opportunities. The digital literacy skills acquired in constructing a Site are very valuable, as we expect more employers to require familiarity with new forms of communication and publishing. Sites allow students to plan, create and publish a website via a single tool, without the need to worry about hosting and uploading files.

In addition, Sites offers full access collaboration control. As well as creating their own Sites, students can share Sites amongst themselves, or individual students or groups can easily be given read access to a full site but only write access to a part of it. They can create sub-pages within their area. into which they can add new content, media, or “Gadgets” - small self-contained widgets allowing a range of functions such as displaying a google calendar or playing an audio clip. They can also browse through the work being done by the other students or groups on their course.

Sites are also very easy to use, which means that students can be shielded from some unnecessary complexities whilst being able to focus on the task at hand. This is normally to gain and demonstrate a knowledge of how to structure and present information on the web, rather than gain mastery of HTML or very complex web design packages. Because Sites are part of our Google Apps domain, there is no need to worry about where to host them, and they are online as immediately as they are created.

We’ve had a number of excellent uses of Sites in Sheffield over last few years, and All About Linguistics  is a great example of these. Level 1 students in Linguistics were divided up into groups, and each group was set a topic in introductory linguistics to research. Each group was also given their own area of a Site set up by their lecturer, Gary Wood, into which they would put their findings using a combination of text, images, and any other appropriate resources they wanted to use. Because the Site was set up using Page Level Permissions, each group had write access to their own areas but could see  the work being done by all the other groups, which allegedly fostered a healthy level of competition between the groups and raised the collective game accordingly. The resulting collaboratively created Site ( is now used by the School of English as a powerful outreach tool with schools, where linguistics is rarely taught as a discipline in their own right.  The level of engagement that the students had with the project was quite palpable, as is visible from a presentation given about the project available at We weren’t the only people to be so very excited by this project too, as in 2012 it won the first ever Joint award from Google and the Association for learning Technology for the best use of Google Apps in learning and teaching (

There are many other uses for Sites apart from getting students to create them in this way - a huge array of Site templates are freely available to use which enable activities like blogging, portfolio creation and many more. Google Sites are demonstrated in the recording between 30.34 and 38.25

Important Considerations

There are a number of important matters that you must consider before using Google Apps with your students. These are fairly easy to resolve and are valuable learning opportunities for students in their own right.


Understanding and respecting the copyright of others is an essential component of contemporary digital literacy skills, whether in academia or the commercial world. Google  Docs or Sites must not contain any copyrighted media,. This is particularly important using these tools as it is so easy to publish directly to the Internet using them.

Data retention
Any assessed work created using Google Apps that counts towards students’ final degree classification must be retained by the department according to the same guidelines governing other forms of assessment. We strongly recommend that as part of the submission process, students transfer the ownership of any such work to the department, using a departmental email address as the new owner. This will then enable the department to retain the data and to “freeze” the work in its submitted state. For more advice on this contact


There have been concerns over the use of Google Hangouts On Air with students. These are video conferencing sessions that can be conducted via Google+ and recorded for subsequent viewing. Because of copyright implications, and the way in which these Hangouts broadcast any meetings directly to a YouTube channel, we would strongly advise colleagues not to use these with students.

Please note this problem only applies to hangouts On Air - conventional (unrecorded) Hangouts do not suffer this problem

Contact us

For those reading here at Sheffield, If you are interested in exploring the possibilities offered by Google Apps in learning and teaching our staff can help get you started, and provide advice on some of the issues involved, including managing submission of work, and giving students necessary copyright guidance. For more information contact

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...