Google Apps for Higher Education

Andy Tattersall identifies five ways in which Google could increase its uptake in academia.

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Google is renowned for providing real-time updates for its applications, often with little or no notice, which is understandable when you have tools that are used by millions of people and for free. Yet on occasion Google misjudges these changes to the point where it can cause uncertainty and frustration amongst its users. Take Google Reader for example, a much used and loved tool for staying abreast of websites and resources via RSS. It was particularly useful for academics to stay abreast of new journal articles and blogs, yet Google killed it off much to the delight of competitors such as Feedly which gained new subscribers in their millions almost overnight.

One potential switch off was an indication of their failure to understand how universities were using their software.  This was the announcement that Google would close the appointment slots function within Google Calendar. For those unaware, appointments were useful in a multitude of ways in education, from tutors allocating slots for their students to support staff, such as librarians doing the same and allowing students and staff to sign up for one-to-one sessions. These would then be added automatically to the student’s own calendar to prevent them from forgetting what they had signed up for. It was a great exercise in preventing time wastage as it did not rely on students jotting down the appointment in a notebook only to forget it.

As a result many in the academic community and beyond voiced their annoyance at such a decision. Google eventually saw the error of its ways and reversed the decision but it remains a concern that they could do something similar in the future.

Google does not get everything right.  Look at how slowly it reacted to the growth of Social Media and how Google Wave bombed in its attempt to change how we handled communication and networks. Yet for every big failure it has had multiple successes. The hope is that Google learns from the mistakes of Wave and knows when to manoeuvre a u-turn..

Privacy and settings

This is not in relation to Google’s attitude to privacy in general as that is a different topic which could stretch for pages, but how Google runs Hangouts On Air. Again at my university we were lucky to get Google Apps and one of the tools with most potential is Google Hangouts. Hangouts are superb for student support, project meetings and general catch ups. When the On Air functionality was turned on we saw this as a great way to deliver live webinars and run them as open days for our department. Sadly unlike publishing a video to YouTube, the privacy settings were nowhere to be seen, so you could not make your on air hangout private as it sat in a public lobby. Anyone who has ever been into a public Web lobby will know that it can be open to abuse and trolling. So our first attempts at Hangouts On Air were slightly uncomfortable as various strangers came in and posted dubious comments. There were no options to make the Hangout private via a password which could be shared with attendees or schedule the Hangout so that attendees had a URL they could copy and paste in advance. It all felt too open, and therefore potentially unsafe, so my institution decided to turn off this function. Ideally Hangout On Air should have the option of private hosting via invite only, like a professional Webinar where you can see exactly who is in your lobby and preferably be able to orchestrate invites and kick off bad attendees. Once these issues are refined Hangouts On Air would be a brilliant addition to the academic’s collection of tools for teaching, instruction, collaboration and communication.

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