A new way of running school software
Burnham School has adopted a cloud computing solution, taking much of its administration online. Lee Suckling talks to Principal Rob Clarke about his school’s use of Google Apps.
“Google Apps offers incredible flexibility, the whole nature of communication can change when you can collaborate on documents online,” said Rob Clarke, who discovered the Google Docs word processing tool three years ago when working as assistant principal of Fendalton School. Being able to co-create and share documents without duplication of information can be extremely powerful, he added.
“A lot of teachers still work in paper-based environments for all internal and external communication, but as New Zealand becomes more and more computer and Internet friendly, this is set to die away.”
Burnham School is using Google Apps primarily as an organizational tool for teachers rather than for in-class learning. Using Google Calendar, staff and teachers input everything from meetings to assignment due dates into a calendar document, enabling efficient sharing of information, instantaneously updatable without ‘back-and forth’ emailing. Depending on the nature of the calendar, it can be opened up to everyone (including parents) or just staff members.
Sharing between everyone
Google Spreadsheets offers the ability to consolidate contact lists, rosters, term planning outlines, and more. Burnham uses Spreadsheets for relief teacher contact information, duty rosters and maintenance requests, among other things.
“Instead of having 20 spreadsheets for everything, there’s just one master spreadsheet which everyone shares,” said Clarke. “We’ve even used it to do each class roll – making the convoluted yearly process of placing kids in classrooms easier by using one online spreadsheet.”
With Google Docs, Burnham utilises Google Apps’ shareable word processing tool to create documents, such as meeting notes and principal reports, lesson plans and staff notices – all kept online in one place and continually updateable by all staff.
Parents can use interactive forms that feed into Google Docs on burnham.school.nz, such as ‘3 Wishes’ and ‘Future Learning’ (forms that ask parents what they’d like to see changed at Burnham).
“Google Apps offers us a range of really easy-to-use and powerful tools that all connect together, making communication much easier. Streamlining things doesn’t necessarily cut down on administration, but life is becoming more organised.”
To date, Burnham students have only been exposed to Google’s blogging service Blogger – not Google Apps – but this year the school plans to offer pupils access to Apps such as email and documents. So far, everyone’s finding it easy to use.
A very familiar system
“Once staff have a Google username and password, everything from Gmail to calendars is fairly easy to use. It’s a very familiar system – if you can use Word you can use Google Docs.”
Because anyone can make a document and open it up to others, set up is no more difficult than creating a new Office file, and co-authoring, sharing and editing is as simple as web-based emailing.
“Instructions given by Google are easy to follow, and the basic functionality is very well thought through.”
As a whole, Google Apps has been taken onboard well by staff.
“The office manager particularly likes it,” said Clarke, noting that Google Apps is invaluable for the administration team.
Teachers also comment positively about its benefits.
“I find it’s really easy to use, I can do things from home and share them, which is important because with my role I’m not always with other staff,” said learning support leader Kirsty Burlinson. “It’s good that everyone can always work collaboratively on the same document.”
Supporting and encouraging
There have been, of course, some challenges and Clarke has had to ensure there are supportive people to show staff ways Google Apps is useful to them.
“By encouraging teachers to share with other teachers and show each other what they’re doing, we’re facilitating the best form of professional development.”
Clarke added that Internet connectivity speeds and costs are still sub-par for educational providers in New Zealand, and this can also cause reliability issues because saving files in Google Apps is done online.
Finally, what would be his advice to schools considering setting up a cloud computing system like Google Apps?
“Don’t be scared, just talk to another school. Some teachers and principals will get overwhelmed, but edu.googleapps.com is well put together with instructional videos and easy-to-follow information.”
Clarke suggests contacting Watchdog, who can put staff in touch with other schools using Google Apps. “Once you’ve talked to someone about it, have a play and find out what works for you – it’s just about getting going.”
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