OU adopts Google Apps for Education

The Open University has taken the decision to adopt a suite of online tools provided freely for education by Google. In our first foray into cloud computing, Google will be hosting for our students:

  • email (gmail)
  • contacts
  • instant messaging and presence
  • calendar
  • document creation, storage and sharing
  • websites
Google Apps for Education

Google Apps for Education

All of our 200,000 or so students will be able to use the applications, which will also be made available to staff later. Email accounts will be provided under the my.open.ac.uk domain. We’ll also be looking at whether to bring on stream other applications as they are integrated into the Google Apps for Education suite.

Meanwhile email provision for our 8,000 Associate Lecturers will be brought into line with other staff and they will be given an account with Microsoft Exchange, accessible online or via email applications such as Outlook or Thunderbird.

Growing numbers of institutions are now adopting cloud-based systems such as Google Apps for Education, particularly in the US. The arguments for hosting your own student email are becoming increasingly weak when it can be done externally for free, or at least much more cheaply. Google will provide a service level agreement with higher levels of availability than we could achieve ourselves. In addition there are other services included such as instant messaging that we don’t currently provide to students but could help them to connect more with each other.

These systems will increasingly start to compete with some of the features of learning management systems / virtual learning environments such as Moodle and Blackboard. They provide a higher level of individual control for students and potentially remove some of the administrative burden from the university. Google’s recent integration of their Groups application in the the Google Apps for Education suite is going to present us with some interesting questions such as:

  • What would be the additional maintenance issues for us in turning on that functionality so that any student can set up a forum e.g. dealing with inappropriate comments, flame wars etc?
  • Should Groups be a space for informal collaboration with formal teaching taking place in Moodle forums?

Another area for investigation is the use of Google Apps as an eportfolio system. Our initial research has shown that it would work for some of the key aspects of eportfolio provision such as the storage of documents under the control of the user, the exporting of these so they can be taken with them through life, and the creation of templates for the collection of structured data for a variety of purposes. We still need to work out how we can freeze or export eportfolio content where it is being for formal assessment.

Working out the balance of what needs to be hosted internally and what can be better done in the cloud is set to become a huge and ongoing debate for educational and other institutions. Lots of interesting issues and work ahead.

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11 Responses to OU adopts Google Apps for Education

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  2. David says:

    If this is to be made available to staff at a later date what provision is being put in place to ensure we do not have confidential or sensitive information leaving secure servers and ending up in an open space in the cloud?

    How will this fit with other initiatives that may or may not be happening around staff collaboration? eRooms for example are offered for collaborative purposes, we have OU wikis using MediaWiki.

    Are staff being given Google mail accounts and if so then how will these work alongside MS Outlook accounts or won’t they?

    I think lots more questions are likely to come out of this but this is a number of universities appear to be going.

  3. Emma says:

    We’ve also got it (for students only at present) at Portsmouth; hopefully staff (at least academic) will have it soon (possibly not email elements)

    ONe of the problems we’ve run into with staff not having it routinely is the difficulty that students have adding staff to their work – most tend to assume (sensibly!) that “all University of Portsmouth” – includes staff. (The other minor issue is that ours is set up so that it has name completion when you’re writing an email – which can be problematic if students are emailing a member of staff – who happens to have the same name as a student; it’s OK in the case of people like me – who have both staff/student status – as the right person, albeit wrong role, gets the message. More of a problem when it’s the wrong person.)

    It looks as if you’ve got Google groups – we’ve not got that – which is, I think, a shame, but guess that treads on the toes of the VLE too much! The other one that would be good is Google Reader; which we’ve not got. :( [And wave, once it stops being beta)

  4. Tim Hunt says:

    I thought the distinction was clear:

    The VLE is the University’s space where it publishes its courses, and students come to study that material and perform some course-specific activities.

    Google tools / ePortfolio / PLE / student’s own laptop are the student’s spaces for keeping and managing their learning.

    In a traditional bricks a and mortar, chalk and talk setting, the VLE is the lecture room and labs; and Google tools are the student’s room in the hall of residence, or possibly their leaver-arch file.

    I think it is clear that you need both types of space, and that they complement each other. However, there are some activities that could take place in either space.

  5. niall says:

    @David This is not intended as a space for the University to place confidential information. We are still looking at the implications of staff accounts on Google Apps – main aim right now is to provide accounts for students. You get a gmail account as an integral part of the services but it may be that we should disable this for staff to avoid confusion in offering two accounts – or provide forwarding of emails if appropriate. Nothing set in stone here yet, though.

    @Emma Thanks for the good points about email confusion which we’ll take into account. Google Groups is now part of Google Apps for Education – see Google blog – and we need to look at the implications of switching it on. Reader, Wave etc are not of course part of the Education suite – yet.

    @Tim Yes the distinction is clear and I like your analogy. However some course teams are talking about using Apps for course-based activities and I do think that more formal elearning activities will migrate to these services longer term – assessed eportfolios being a starting point perhaps.

  6. Chris says:

    @niall, what provisions have you taken for disabled students and those requiring to use enabling software as part of their studies and higher education? Are you currently looking into the implications and impact on these students prior to all student accessing this and have those registered disabled students been offered a chance to test and give feedback?

    I know this is not the space to place University confidential information but any feedback would I am sure be appreciated both in OUSA conferences and in open forum like this as this change is causing emense pressure on students studying for their honours degree’s, especially those who have special circumstances and use additional enabling equipment and software.

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  8. robp says:

    I think this is great news. Not specifically that it’s google, but that such a facility is going to be avaialble. How soon are tutors likely to get accounts? It seems to me that we will want to be getting in there and interacting with the students as soon as possible.

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  10. niall says:

    @Chris As far as email is concerned students will be able to use the email application of their choice so that may suit some people better. The web-based interface for Google Apps was evaluated some months ago by the Institute of Educational Technology at the OU and a range of potential accessibility issues were identified. These were fed back to Google’s accessibility team with whom we had a productive teleconference. I am hopeful that any ongoing accessibility issues will be addressed by Google which expresses a commitment to ensure that its products should be accessible.

    @robp I agree we need to get tutors access quickly – as soon as we’ve worked out the timetable for deployment we’ll make that info public.

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