by Jean Wang
Starting this year, Gunn is providing all students and administration with Google accounts, which includes access to popular applications such as Google Docs and Sites. “We’re partnering with Google so that within Google, the students of Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) have their own domain, and every student has an account,” Technology Coordinator Lettie Weinmann said. “I expect it’s going to be fairly revolutionary.”
PAUSD has started using Google Apps for Education, a hosted service that allows schools to use a variety of popular Google tools, similar to those found on Google accounts. “In terms of functionality, it’s not that different from your typical Google account,” Weinmann said. However, while Google administers the Google accounts, Apps accounts are administered by PAUSD and includes a unique domain specifically for PAUSD students. This means that PAUSD controls the applications that these accounts can access. Currently, the PAUSD accounts have access to Google Docs, Google Sites, and Google Calendar. There are also plans to include access to Google Mail (Gmail), but legal issues, especially regarding student privacy, have yet to be resolved. When rolled out, the PAUSD Gmail accounts for students will be accessible by the district, allowing them to read emails and track messages. “They don’t want to and they don’t plan to,” Weinmann said. “But they can access your account if they need to.”
The new Google Apps accounts will provide students with benefits that a regular Google account doesn’t. For example, the accounts will have greater storage space, for both the Docs and Sites than a typical account. In addition, within Google Docs and Sites, there are options to allow sharing with only other students within the PAUSD domain. “For my AP class, it allows us to have a secure website that only [students] have access to,” history teacher Faith Hilal. “It allows me to put a lot more [copyrighted] material on the website than if it was open to the general public.” The accounts also have access to a directory of all the students in PAUSD, allowing users to find the email of any student, elementary through high school they need to contact. Students can now work on group projects through Google Docs. “It allows for greater cooperative work outside the classroom,” Hilal said. As students begin to use these services, more advantages are expected to arise. “Students will have different ideas on how to use the new Google tools, and we’ll learn from each other,” Technology Support Specialist Darlene Feldstein said.
The new Google Apps for Education service is meant to replace Blackboard Learn (InClass), which will slowly be phased out as teachers transfer their class information from InClass to Google Sites. For the administration and teachers, the change made sense in both cost and functionality. In fact, the change to Google Apps came originally from the staff, who had started using their own Google accounts to create sites for their students. At a staff development meeting last year, math teacher Rajeev Virmani, social studies teacher Roni Habib and French teacher Marcel Losier presented their innovative use of their Google accounts. “We thought what they were doing was very simple and efficient,” Computer Support Specialist Bret Demetris said. “It was really a push from the teachers for a more simple, streamlined process.” With the district also considering students’ need for file storage, Google Apps for Education provided a perfect solution.
Unlike Blackboard Learn, which is a paid subscription service, Google Apps for Education is free for all educational institutions. Furthermore, by partnering with Google, PAUSD will have access to all of its cutting edge innovations. “Whenever Google comes out with something new for Google Apps for Education, it will be accessible,” Feldstein said. Moreover, unlike InClass, which requires teachers to upload all their documents each new class year, Google Sites keep the materials from year to year. “InClass is not my favorite,” Hilal said. “With this, there’s a lot more flexibility and permanence. It’s more of updating and upgrading rather than starting from scratch.”
Furthermore, teachers can customize their Google sites to fit their own needs. “It’s more personal that InClass.” Weinmann said. In addition to using the Google accounts to craft personlized sites, teachers have also found other innovative uses of the Google accounts. For Hilal’s World History class, students submitted their papers through Google Docs, rather than the conventional methods of email and hard copies, saving paper in the process.
With the service being finalized this past month, Gunn has started making the accounts available to students. While the accounts are available for all students, not every student has chosen to utilize the service. Students who have received their account have found it difficult to determine whether to share items with other students’ PAUSD emails or their personal ones. “Until everyone gets them, they are going to be a hassle,” freshman Francesca Macrae said. “But when everyone’s on them, they’ll definitely be an advantage.” The technology department agrees with this sentiment as well. “It will be the most powerful if everyone uses it,” Weinmann said. “We suspect as it grows, there will be more advantages to be on the domain.”