Thursday, February 13, 2014

Using Google to Enhance Teams

My school district embraced Google Apps for Education a few years ago, and since then we have been working to help our administrators, teachers, and students move to these tools to enhance teaching and learning. For the uninitiated here is a quick video:

As someone who is responsible for helping educators understand the tools at their disposal, I made the shift almost from the very beginning to working within the Google universe, and honestly, I wouldn't go back.

It's remarkable to me that we have all of these productivity, collaboration, and communication tools at our disposal for free. Beyond the cost, here is a short list of the reasons why I choose to use Google Apps over other alternatives every day:

  1. No Saving, No Flash Drives, No Emailing Documents- Because Google Apps exist in the cloud and automatically save as I go, I no longer have the problem of where I put my file, how to move the file between devices, or which version of my document is the most up-to-date.
  2. Collaboration!- While I can certainly work on a document, presentation, spreadsheet, or website on my own, I can also easily work in real time with other folks from all over the world by taking advantage of the many sharing options I have for everything I create in or upload into my Drive. And while learning to work well in a collaborative digital environment requires some practice, it becomes as natural as sitting across a table from someone.
  3. Simplicity- Google Apps are not burdened with unnecessary and complicated features. Their functionality hits the sweet spot between useful and clean. As a professional developer, I like that I get all of the tools I need without having to wade through tools I will never use.
  4. Integration- Of course, the beauty of jumping whole-hog into a single environment is how seamlessly each part of that environment integrates with the others. With my single GMail account, I integrate my mail, my documents, my online storage, my calendar, my blog, and many of my social networking tools. Also, many of my favorite web tools and mobile apps integrate with my Google account, saving me the trouble of remembering hundreds of logins and passwords.
  5. Storage- I LOVE that I have 30 GB of storage with my GAFE account. That is more than enough to handle my many projects. What I love even more is that the files I create in Google Drive or convert to Google Docs format don't count toward my total. That leaves me free to save the space I have for important files that I need to keep in their original format (though I find that I do less and less of that now).
  6. Communication- Simply put, I am more connected and better able to communicate because of the amazing tools that Google puts at my disposal. Google+ alone has fundamentally changed the way that I communicate with colleagues across my district, across the state, and around the world. Google+ hangouts are an amazing time-saver, and Google+ communities are quickly becoming my favorite means of collaborating with large groups. That's without even mentioning the many communication features built into Google Docs, GMail, and Google Sites.
  7. It's everywhere- As much as anything, I like that Google tools are cross-platform and browser-neutral. Being able to access my GMail, Google calendar, Google Drive, and Google+ on any device anywhere means that I am no longer limited in my ability to work where and when I want to, even on devices that aren't my own.

Since the team I work with has been an early-adopter of the world of Google Apps within our district, we have already become very accustomed to collaborating and working in the Google environment. We use Google Apps for nearly every facet of our work from learning, to conceptualization, to creation, to promotion and sharing. Here are some basic examples of how we use Google Apps to enhance the productivity, collaboration, and creativity of our team:

  1. We use Google Forms to gather data and inform decisions. For example, we collect feedback from educators about our work using Forms. We also invite folks to apply for programs that we offer and to propose sessions for professional development experiences that we host. Additionally, we use Forms to learn what specific needs teachers within a given building have, so that we can best respond to those needs.
  2. We also use Google+ to learn from and interact with other educators. Adding education technology leaders from all over the world to our circles means that we have the opportunity to stay caught up with the work they are doing and discover opportunities to collaborate with people from around the world.
  3. We use Google Drive and docs to brainstorm and organize our ideas for our projects. For example, when we are working on a grant proposal, designing a workshop, or even organizing an event as large as a conference, we do that brainwork together inside of Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Every member of the team has editing rights, and that means that we have the ability to work synchronously or asynchronously, together or apart, and we all have access to the most recent version of the work.
  4. We also use Google docs to prepare for and record our meetings. Before a meeting, a member of the team shares a blank agenda template. Our norm is that anyone can add any item to the agenda up to the time that the meeting starts. We also add a parking lot for topics that come up during the meeting, so that we can return to them if we have time at the end. During the meeting, we all take notes inside the Doc as we work our way through the agenda. The result is a set of minutes of that meeting that are pre-agreed upon before the next meeting and that are filled with extra resources.
  5. Google calendars is a very versatile tool that enables our team to share calendars that contain events that relate to the work we are doing. The ability to share different calendars with different groups, but view them all in an individual user's calendar is highly valuable. Additionally, events that appear in our calendars get pushed out as notifications through our GMail, as do messages from Google+.
  6. We use Google+ Hangouts to enable face to face collaboration at those times when we can't meet physically together. For example, when we onboard new members of the team who are embedded in buildings, we hold a regular Google+ Hangout each day for the first week or so, so that anyone with questions or concerns can get immediate help instead of waiting for our weekly meeting. During those Hangouts, we can share screens, refer to shared Docs, and even record the meeting using Google Hangouts On Air.
  7. Google+ Communities are also a great tool for designing ongoing collaborative spaces in which team members can share ideas, promote opportunities, and get feedback. Communities become virtual meeting spaces that can point to and organize shared resources. Our team belongs to several Google+ communities that connect us to the folks who share in our work beyond our district.
  8. Google's integration with YouTube, Google Sites and Blogger also give us hosting solutions for resources that we create and ideas that we share. In the past, we have hosted online challenges through Blogger, and have curated and shared videos that we have created through our YouTube Channel. We also post resources we create to Google+ to share with folks in our district and beyond.
These are just a few of the many ways that our team uses Google Apps daily as we work collaboratively. Learning to use Google Apps is easy, and resources to get started abound. If you are interested in using Google Apps to enhance your team's work, I recommend the resources below as a start:

EdTech Team: Google Drive Apps
Monica Martinez's Google+ Site
EdTech Team: Google Calendar

photo credit: topgold via photopin cc

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