I’ve written about this topic before but having just completed my 4th District migration to Google Apps for Education (GAFE) I thought I would revisit the topic again. I firmly believe that Google Apps for Education is the platform best suited to build a collaborative learning environment for 21st Century classrooms. Now I know that’s a lot of buzz words but seriously, the ability to have multiple students (and teachers) working in real time on the same document across multiple platforms is truly transformative. It is so transformative that I don’t understand how an institution of education can claim to be teaching 21st Century college and career reediness without it. I know, more buzz words.
As for this latest migration, it’s gone fairly smoothly. As in the past, the sticking points tend to not be with use in the classroom. It is generally the office staff, the business users, that have the more difficult time transitioning and require more help with the change. Power users of Outlook especially, find the move to the web based UI difficult. I’m finding that to be the case once again.
And this is understandable. Features go missing. Simple things like the ability to right click a file and attach it to email in Windows go missing. The send to email menu option doesn’t do what it used to do. Scheduling the sending of email requires third party plugins and more steps than before. Sorting by username, defining how the time field is displayed and even sorting email by date are all little features that Outlook users take for granted that are sadly missing in Gmail. Work arounds or alternate steps need to be taught. This all affects productivity during the initial weeks and months of any migration. However, having everyone on the same messaging platform is important because it opens up the possibilities of hangouts, chat and doc sharing without barriers to domains or clients.
But I’ve noticed some annoyances with this latest migration and mostly they stem from the integration of Google+ into the GAFE environment. The plusification of GAFE as I like to call it. Some users have figured out how to setup G+ profiles and have gone so far as to change their profile names (me included). This name change affects how they are displayed in the Global Directory and admins have no control over it. People that know me, know that I am not a big fan of control, but for users with multiple G+ accounts (personal and work) they are tending to put additional information in their Work G+ profile names to distinguish them from their personal G+ profiles. This is causing mild havoc with sending emails, since the altered G+ profile name shows up in the auto complete. We need some control over this. The ability to make GAFE G+ plus accounts private to the domain would be much appreciated too. G+ integration is half baked, and yes I know we all asked for it for GAFE but really, it needs some work.
Another annoying thing with G+ in GAFE is that some users have setup G+ profiles and others have not. For those that have, G+ has taken over their Chat feature set. As if chat wasn’t complicated enough, with it’s integration with “Other Contacts”, now users with G+ profiles are being prompted to put people into circles and contacts don’t show up in the “hangouts” window until they do.
Yes, I could turn off G+ on the domain. But then we would lose the hangout feature and hangouts is just too good to do that. Why Google couldn’t keep hangouts and chat features separate, at least for GAFE users, until they had a better way to integrate them, I don’t know. But there is nothing quite so fun as doing a training for staff and finding some with chat and some with hangouts and getting sucked into a conversation about circles.
Personal groups is another area that causes issues. This time around it’s the same annoying thing with local groups not showing up on iOS mobile devices. In case Google isn’t aware, teachers make local groups for their classroom parents and use them throughout the year to communicate with. One would think local groups would sync to a user’s mobile device, since local contacts do. But sadly no. The alternative is to enable and show teachers how to use domain groups, which are a completely different animal. It would be nice if local contacts groups just synced.
These little annoyances could lead to a “death by a thousand cuts” situation. Thankfully, the power of GAFE in the classroom and the flexibility of multi device support and cloud based storage for users continues to outweigh these issues. Google has been a leader in online collaborative spaces for many years but other people are trying to catch up and little things like these do start to add up over time.
And then there is the fact that with every release and every iteration GAFE is getting a little bit more complicated. This is the nature of all software. Features equal reasons to keep paying. But I remember one of the main things I liked so much about GAFE circa 2007 was how simple it was compared to Microsoft Office. Granted, Docs doesn’t crash anymore when 24 kids try to edit a document at the same time and sheets keeps getting more and more excel like but overall I’m starting to miss how easy GAFE was to use. With every UI iteration or G+ integration, GAFE seems to lose some of that easy use. And sadly, the little annoyances aren’t being fixed.
Of course, my perspective may be a bit different. I’ve switched back and forth between Outlook and Gmail three times in the last three years and each time I’ve noticed the little things more and more. So, reflecting back on all of my migrations, is Google Apps for Education still the best messaging platform for schools and would I migrate a 5th time given the opportunity? Unequivocally the answer is yes. For all the annoyances and the continuous upgrades and UI changes, running a hosted platform with 21str Century collaboration and user control at it’s core function is key to building 21st Century learning environments and I would not trade that for all the column sort features in the world.
At least until the next Docs comes along.