During March 2015, the Google Innovation Tour 2015 hit Durban and CTO of DVT Durban, Luke Venediger was in attendance. He put together this short report for DigiKids. Luke Venediger looks after DVT Durban, a development centre that works with SMART technologies to build and extend their cloud-based collaboration system called SMART amp. With a firm focus on education, they’re a small, full-stack team using technologies like Java, Redis, Firebase, Google Cloud Platform and AWS to deliver cutting edge real-time services.
I had the privilege of being a part of the Google Innovation Tour this year to help Google promote their fully managed free-to-schools email, document and storage service called Google Apps for Education. My team builds software for SMART Technologies, the leader in collaborative learning systems, and I was interested to know more about South African schools’ digital strategy. What surprised me the most was how enthusiastic Educators are about embracing technology. These are professionals with a passion for helping our children learn better. The day started with an introduction to Google’s offering, and continued with a panel of representatives from various schools sharing their experience of going digital.
Everyone’s heard of Google search, Gmail for personal email, and Google Drive for file storage (just like Dropbox). Others might even use Google Docs for word processing and Google Sheets for spreadsheets, all of which can be accessed with the same account used to log into Gmail. But what’s not as well-known is that Google offers all of these systems in an integrated package called Google Apps for Education – with unlimited storage and usage – for free. Schools can sign up and link Google Apps for Education to their own school’s website domain, migrate from their existing email server and kiss the “big server in the back room” goodbye. Email will still go to email@example.com but it will be stored, secured and managed by Google.
The panel of pre-school and high-school representatives shared various experiences of how moving to Google Apps had made sharing documents and organising classes much simpler. St Mary’s DSG have set up two mailing lists for each grade, one for the students and another for their parents. Teachers send out homework assignments to students and send a copy to parents, ensuring everyone knows there’s homework to be done. Another school uses Google’s Forms feature to capture class registration every day, a task that used to take their administration staff a whole morning to capture. Yet even more examples came through, such as students emailing teachers to say that they were off sick or to ask questions about their homework assignment. Other schools use Google Calendar to manage class timetables and extra-mural activities.
The panel also reflected on how moving to Google Apps for Education isn’t just about signing up – it needs change of approach and mindset in some tough areas that were once taboo. Mr Anthony Hoyer from Westville Boys High School shared his experience of relaxing the school’s personal device policy to allow students to bring their phones and tablets in from home. He noted that this significantly reduced improper device usage in the classroom. Embracing devices seemed to relax a long-held tension between student and teacher.
In addition to a balanced device policy, schools also need to have excellent wifi infrastructure. Consider that each student will bring at least one device to school, sometimes two (think phone and tablet). So for a school of a thousand users, a wifi network has to handle peak loads of up to two thousand simultaneous users. High-quality internet access in the form of a dedicated fibre optic link yields the best results, but ADSL and a high-speed radio link will work too.
Once a school is on Google’s platform, a whole world of services open up. One such service is SMARTamp, a digital canvas for co-creation and student collaboration. Using any tablet or PC, students work together to build content while being guided by their teacher. Students can work alone or in groups, in the class or at home. Work is saved to a file, just like any other document, and lives on each student’s Google Drive. This, and other tools, extend and enhance Google’s platform, showing us an exciting glimpse into the future of learning.
I have huge hopes for the impact of education on South Africa’s future, and it was exciting to be around so many education professionals who feel the same way. Using platforms like Google Apps for Education to reduce the friction of daily activities like document sharing, educators can focus on their core objective of helping students learn and grow. I can see a bright future for our learners. We’ve crossed the technology rubicon and there’s no going back!