Friday, 8 February 2013

Using Google Sites for Self Assessment

I went to an interesting workshop run by Simon Davis this week looking at using Google Apps in Education. I was there to demo Google Hangouts and unfortunately had a heap of technical problems ( my laptop battery died... oops! Note: never believe it when your battery says it has 2 hours of juice ). Luckily, I had a Hangout I'd prepared earlier.

The best bit for me was Catherine Shawyer (right) showing how, in Education, they were using a variety of Google Apps with elegance and gusto.

They used template Google Sites for portfolio work (shown below). They found the sheer reliability of Google Apps was hugely important given their students loss of trust having used other tools and simply lost work by accidentally clicking the back button or similar. Usability really matters.

But their most enthusiastic use was in using Google Sites for the hugely valuable process of self assessment. Typically, this previously took place on paper that became increasingly dog-eared and was often lost.  Using a Google Site meant firstly, that it happened (better than before) and secondly that it could be "taken away" by the student in their next stage of their learning, two huge factors in their use and liking for the technology.

Catherine said she used to use USB sticks to store videos of students' presentation and was forever having to swap them and give them to the right person. She now stores them all online and said “I don't say this often, but Google Drive has changed my life” -

I'm starting to see a pattern recently, and that is, wherever there is dog-eared paper, there is probably a very strong case for replacing it with Google Docs.

Using Google Forms For Qualitative Research

This week, I saw presentations from students performing qualitative research in Archaeology. The focus of their projects was an Android/iPhone heritage app called York's Churches which has been developed to encourage people to explore the life and history of York city centre churches.

Go get the app for Android or iPhone yourself, it's lovely.

The students' projects involved a mixture of focus groups, ethnographic work and Google Forms with iPads to gather data. The projects were mainly looking at how they might better raise awareness of the application with tourists and what improvements mi

The Google Forms and iPads were used in various ways, including...

  • As a data capture tool when surveying members of the public
  • They were used to demo the application on the street
  • The forms were used to ease the transcribing of data they recorded with pen and paper, which might be questions that they answered themselves ( for example, "Did they seem genuinely interested?" )
  • The students also mailed the Google Forms surveys to Bed & Breakfast owners

The students' presentations were fun and showed how they'd mastered the tools. They'd used various charts to visualise their data and TagClouds for textual visualisations. They also started to realise that they wanted more sophisticated analytics and perhaps needed to explore more complex tools than Google Forms.

They also had a few good stories about the rambling lunacy of the general public. They learned a lot.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Using Blogger For Student Reflection ( Archaeology )

The Idea

+Sara Perry in Archaeology has been using Blogger to support a project in which her students create an "object narrative" that tells us the story of a museum exhibit. The project, in flipping the students' perspective around on the objects on display gets them to think differently about museums and exhibitions.

In a workshop, each of the students, having chosen an object ( from a crystal skull to a penny to a bike to a Christmas bauble etc ) were guided through creating a blog and began telling their object's story.

What We Did

We created a central aggregator blog that subscribed to the feeds of each of the students' blogs, creating a point from which the students, and Sara could easily get to each of the latest posts. We did this using the simple RSS gadget in the Layout Editor. Like this ...

The bottom half of this blog ended looking like this...

... creating a useful "Starting Point" for exploring the objects' stories.


Students were willing but initially far from comfortable with blogging, none had ever blogged previously. I was surprised by this.

Some students had issues with anonymity and their academic reputation when "reflecting in public". This view may be the more savvy. Next time we go through this process we may include a more involved process including the creation of the identity that is writing the "object narratives".

Whilst the students gained useful blogging skills, next time we will include an introduction to Google Reader and maybe a few activities to help students better engage with the blogosphere which, for most, was a totally new and alien environment.

The final blogs are linked from here but the students were marked on their final presentations, where they reflected on their experience and opinions about the potential for blogs ( and online in general ) to augment the museum experience.

It's worth pointing out that one blog was used as a "pitch" for a museum project and won.

It was a brief project, but I was impressed at how the students adapted creatively to the new world of blogs and developed interesting ideas of "how they would do it differently next time".

Friday, 1 February 2013

Moan: Google Refreshes Google Forms

Google's announcement that Google Forms have been refreshed was welcome, it's always encouraging when a company updates a core tool you and your colleagues regularly use.... like say, Blogger. For example. Ahem.


Anyway, watching the videos about what had changed I notice that they've added the ability to share editing/viewing forms with people. That's great but it's sort of what I come to expect from Google, that nice Share dialog in many ways IS Google Apps. It doesn't feel like an innovation, it feels like a neglected corner being given a spring clean.

The relationship between Forms and Spreadsheets has been altered. It's never been clear that when you create a Form a Spreadsheet will magically be created for the results and now you can have a Form that doesn't have an associated Spreadsheet. I'm not sure if they've made it clearer, just different. We'll see.

And the demo in the video above, of being able to copy a list of items into a multiple choice question is a feature that I bet there's been at least one request for ( I'm exaggerating of course ). Where did that feature come from except from the developer's own weird fantasies? Or am I being harsh?

Google Forms have has a CSS face lift, it looks like they'll look more inline with other core Google Apps which is a good thing. It looks like they have core features we expect from Google Apps ( like pretty nifty sharing permissions ).

Google Forms doesn't have the ability to insert pictures or movies yet? I wonder why not. This would be a complete no brainer and let people whip up their quizzes with picture rounds or super-lightweight training videos with questions.

The complete lack of theme editing ability is a worrying trend I'm coming to expect from Google. Like a Google Site theme, you can choose any theme as long as it is white, black or frankly, insultingly stupid. Being able to add a header to your Form would be handy... In fact, it'd be good in all sorts of Google Apps, if Google Apps organisations could do the equivalent of providing branded templates.

So, as I said, I'm always happy to see improvements, but when they're what we expect anyway, or what we never needed, or not what people have been begging for I wonder what's coming next?

Using Google Spreadsheets To Improve Student Accommodation

The Problem

Tim Saunders, is fast becoming the poster boy for my belief that getting non-technical people coding is good idea.

Tim started in the University of York accommodation office and inherited a task of managing students' requests to change their room.

This room changing process was paper-based and requires various peoples' agreement and signatures. It resulted in a student having to carry an increasingly dog-eared form to college administrators and back to Tim and then to the old college administrators. It was slow, actively encouraged signature forging and reliably error prone.

All the data collected then needed to be entered into SITS, our student database, which involves various charging and set up costs, so it really helps if this data is correct, having being verified by everyone in the chain.

The Solution

Armed with a some self-taught Javascript using the online learning platform CodeAcademy, Tim thought that the pile of paper forms in his office and queue of frustrated students could be improved with some Google applications.

He used a combination of tools to help manage the flow of information, including Google Forms, Spreadsheets and Apps Script to automatically send emails to college administrators and students.

The (massively simplified version of the ) process begins with a student filling out a Request to Transfer form ( shown below ).

The data collected from the form is added to spreadsheet (shown below) that has extra data integrated with it about the rooms features and contract details. An email is sent to the current college administrator that they can then approve or deny and then, once approved it is then sent to the prospective college administrator to confirm availability.

In the spreadsheet above you can see notes on when to "Check CA ( College Administrator ) and tools to fire off a particular email. The colouring of the spreadsheet is done automatically to help with navigating and understanding what the overall status of accommodation requests is.

Once agreed, students then receive an email in which an additional form is used to confirm their order. ( shown below ).

Once everything is agreed and confirmed, the data needed is sent to Tim in a format that means he doesn't have to enter it manually into our student database, SITS. A poor man's API if you will and still massively better than entering names, numbers and data by hand!

Interestingly, Tim and the Accommodation can now also for the first time, see the whole process from a bird's eye view by using the charting tools in the spreadsheet to see, from which college the most requests are being received, and when the most requests come in ( the start of term ).

One thing that I really like about Tim's implementation in this project is its lightweight approach. They didn't sit back and design a whole complicated web application that ultimately wouldn't have fit the many edge cases and workarounds in these sorts of scenarios. I like how the system primarily uses email, something College Administrators are comfortable with, and more importantly, remember to do.

Now that Tim has been promoted, the next real challenge for Accommodation ( and Tim ) is to find the best way to ensure that all this work is usable and maintainable by the Accommodation team. I know they're doing all they can to make sure that it is well documented and as collaboration-friendly as possible. They're even considering screencasts to help explain how the pieces fit together.

Tim Saunders, (like Paul Bushell in Estates with his Dashboard system ) has shown that anyone who wants to can take control of both messy processes and code to make life better, not just for themselves ( even though that would be justification enough ) but for students and colleague too. What was a slow, arduous, error prone process is now elegantly handled in a few Google Spreadsheets and Google Forms.

How To Use Hangout Screen Sharing For Presentations

In my previous post, I asked if I was missing something ( shut  it you) with regards to using Hangouts for presentations. +Eduardo Carrillo put me right, thanks!

The trick is: 

  • In another window have your Slides presentation ready. 
  • Click "Present" and instead of clicking "Exit fullscreen" from the top of the screen, which exits the Present mode, you exit fullscreen from the little black toolbar at the bottom left. 
  • I additionally changed View > Always Show Bookmarks Bar in Chrome
  • Now, back in your Hangout select Screenshare and choose the window with your presentation in it

I think that's it. I guess at this point, one could go full screen so that the people in the real world audience get the bestest, fullest screen experience... and it wouldn't matter that you lose access to the Hangout ( from an interface point of view ). 

Having got this working, I'm not completely convinced by it. My heebies are jeebying. I can imagine this being far from intuitive for even a seasoned presenter. The UI feels sticky-taped together.

Aesthetically, I really don't like those big black borders on my presentation either... which forces you to use a white-on-black theme.

I obviously need to play with this a little more and get more comfortable with what it can do and what the workarounds and processes are. I'd like to get to the position where I could easily coach a lecturer in turning a regular presentation into one that can incorporate Hangout technology and questions and answers from remote participants and have it still feel natural, fun and slick.