When Erica Hartman first arrived at the West Morris Regional High School District, the schools had no platform for online collaboration. There was no easy or campus-wide method of virtual communication and the district was far removed from the Web 2.0 era where students and teachers work and share ideas in an online format using Web-based tools.
“We needed to upgrade the email system and find a way that the teachers could easily collaborate,” says Hartman. “There was no virtual collaboration.” Hartman is the supervisor of technology integration for the New Jersey-based West Morris Regional district.
In order to bring a unified collaboration platform to the schools, Hartman recommended using Google apps for education, a suite of free Web-based apps for collaboration and productivity that allows for document sharing, website creation, a calendar, instant messaging and more. Google Apps for Education has all of the same basic Google apps like Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Slides, etc. However it also has applications designed specifically for education like Google Scholar, which allows students to search scholarly literature across a variety of disciplines. This application is used for research papers and reports.
“All the staff and the teachers and administrators are going to have Gmail accounts and they’ll be able to use calendar, Google Docs and Google Sites. That offers them a way to work seamlessly whether they’re at home or in the building,” says Hartman. The district plans to expand the use of the Google apps to students in September.
One of the hallmarks of the modern classroom is collaboration. Students and teachers share and discuss ideas and bring outside resources into the learning environment. Technology helps to facilitate and enhance collaboration. For example, teachers can easily share a homework assignment or syllabus with the entire class using Google Drive. The document can’t get lost because it’s stored on the Web. Students simply log into their Gmail accounts for access.
Teachers can also build websites using Google Sites. According to Hartman, an English teacher at one of the district high schools used the site-making application to create a website about the Canterbury tales. The teacher recorded information about each of the characters and created a reference guide for students to access using their smartphones.
Hartman is a Google-certified teacher and trainer so she has worked with a number of school districts in New Jersey and across the county where she has seen success with the apps particularly when it comes to ease of communication.
“It really changes the culture of the school because you can instantly insert documents in Google Drive right into your email. You can schedule meetings right through your Gmail. You can see who’s busy and who’s available. You can make schedules,” says Hartman.
Since the Google apps are Web-based they can be accessed from anywhere there is an Internet connection simply by signing into a Gmail account. This allows for greater flexibility because neither staff nor students have to be in the building or on a district device to access the tools.
A Safe Environment
Having one suite of tools district wide also makes collaborative technology easy to manage. The interface is the same for everyone and staff and students have access to the same applications. Technology coordinators also have the ability to set restrictions for privacy and safety.
“From the management standpoint for a technology coordinator it’s easy to manage student accounts and manage the [Google] apps. You can restrict who they [users] are able to share websites and documents with,” says Hartman. Technology coordinators can also place restrictions on where users can send an email and who they can receive an email from.
Hartman is also looking forward to using the recently released Google+ for students. Google+ is a social media platform similar to Facebook where students can create profiles, post messages, share photos and video chat with up to nine other users.
“We can have a [Google] Hangout, which is great for online tutoring and also connecting with students around the world,” says Hartman. A Hangout is what Google calls its video chat function.
Making the Switch
Hartman expects there to be a small learning curve when the district switches to Gmail and the apps for education.
“Change is always difficult especially when staff is used to using a certain email system for a very long time,” says Hartman. “But after reviewing everything we felt the Google apps would make sense.”
Many students already have a personal Gmail account and are familiar with the way it works. The move to the apps for education will most likely be an easy transition for them. Hartman plans to have training for staff to make sure they are comfortable as well.
“We’re definitely going to provide training through videos and webinars,” says Hartman. She also plans to host tech drop-in days where teachers can stop by her office to ask questions or go over how to use an application.
Preparing for BYOT
West Morris Regional is also turning to Google Apps for Education to prepare for going BYOT or “Bring Your Own Technology” in the fall. Students and teachers will be allowed to bring any mobile device to school. Because the Google apps work with any operating system they are device agnostic. Staff and students can bring in whatever device they have at home and still be able to use the district’s educational tools.
Hartman says the district wants students to be able to use personal devices in the classroom, but felt providing the devices in a 1:1 program wasn’t sustainable in the long run.
“We made this decision because a 1:1 doesn’t really make sense because technology changes so quickly,” says Hartman. “I’ve seen schools that have ordered iPad 2 and then six months after you have the iPad 3 and then the iPad 4 and then the iPad mini. The school system can’t keep up with a 1:1 budget.” Using the Google apps allows the district to support many different devices.
“Really what we want to do is provide the ability for a teacher or a student to learn anytime, anywhere with any device in our building,” says Hartman. “We want to provide them with the platform to collaborate in the most cost-effective and easy way.”