An Ode to Google Drive

The last two weeks have been quite an interesting two weeks in the world of Google Apps for Education with the release of their newest product, Google Classroom.

That there is a very tight integration with Google Drive that I love. And so, in spite of Classroom being the flavour of the month, it is Drive that is the hero here.

Google Drive’s sharing model means that I can link to a document in the middle of a folder full of other documents that I don’t want students to see without having to panic about sharing permissions and the integrity of the rest of the folder. Sharing it in Classroom is easy and so instead of pupils getting a myriad of links to manage and documents to find, one of Classroom’s primary functions is to create an interface where those links and documents can be centrally stored.

One of my favourite features of the mobile app version of Google Drive is that it has a great document scanner. This has meant that uploading worked solutions to the notes and worksheets that I distribute using Classroom is as easy as taking a few photos with my phone and then simply pointing to the PDF that Drive created from within Classroom.

I will confess that I’ve not yet made use of the Assignments feature in Classroom. I haven’t rushed to this yet because it is apparent that the pupils need to be brought on slowly. I’ve been surprised by some of the technical obstacles that the students have faced, but mostly these have been minor insecurities and have quickly adapted to the system. As an effective pilot class, I want their experience to be positive. This will help when it comes to encouraging and driving staff and other classes to use the system.

Because Maths doesn’t lend itself to pupils typing up their homework, I intend to make use of the Drive scanner for assignment handins. Pupils will effectively submit a PDF for marking. With iPad apps such as PDFExpert having built-in Google Drive capabilities, I can annotate and synchronise back marked documents, and then “grade” and return the assignment in Classroom. If I were in charge, the next feature that Google would bring to Drive is the online annotation of PDF files…

One issue that has caught me out more than a few times is the fact that I have multiple Google accounts and share folders between them. Because much of the content originates from my home PC, this often happens to be my home PC which is signed in using a personal account. This means that while the file is accessible in my school Google Drive folders, my school account doesn’t own the document. Classroom won’t share a document that isn’t owned by someone within the school. I guess that this has to do with the sharing model and the fact that document ownership cannot be transferred between domains. The solution isn’t complex, but it is irritating: make a copy of the document and share that. My workflow is to right-click and copy, delete the “personally” owned version and then rename the “school” owned version.

While people are raving about Classroom, I’m quietly aware that without Google Drive, Classroom would be nothing. Tools like Moodle provide much more comprehensive features (including linking directly to – although not automatic sharing of – Google Drive documents), but it is power of Drive that makes the workflow in Classroom so much more appealing.

Google Classroom goes live

When Google first got involved with EdX in September last year, I guessed that a Google-based educational management service couldn’t be far off. Earlier this year, Classroom was announced and the public previews started in July to selected Beta users. Today, Google Classroom is live for all Google Apps for Education domains. Earlier in the week saw a staggered roll-out to selected domains.

Classroom is linked very closely with Google Drive which is used to manage the back-end of the assignment process. For those that have played with “Doctopus” – a plugin for Google Sheets that manages document distribution and privileges within Drive – will appreciate the improved simplicity of this task in Classroom.

Classroom is nowhere near as fully featured as Moodle, and probably intentionally so. I guess that Classroom will see a much quicker uptake in schools, not because it is more useful than Moodle, but because of its tight integration with the rest of the Google services – specifically Drive.

As with any Google service, the goal is to release early, and update frequently. This is also true of Classroom.

During the preview, one of the notable weaknesses of Classroom was the fact that there was no “static” content page. Instead, everything in Classroom had to form part of this timeline of activity and announcements which meant that course materials would drift away and out of the timeline, however, that feature was rolled out earlier this week.

Another frequently requested feature was the ability for teachers to review assignments in progress but which had not yet been submitted – in the aims of monitoring progress and providing formative comments to perhaps guide the pupil in their work.

I’m looking forward to showing our staff what can be done in Classroom and seeing how they make use of it.

Working with Google Apps School Directory Sync

At school we are moving full force into a Google Apps deployment. In order to make it manageable, we have elected to use the Google Apps School Directory Sync app, developed by the same guy as the Google Apps Directory Sync app – and largely to fulfil the same function, but this time using easily exported data from a school management software.

I have written a module into ADAM which updates the CSV files periodically and a scheduled task on the server performs an automatic synchronisation of the data up to Google Apps. This process also creates and suspends users (although it doesn’t have to) leaving us with the most accurate list of accounts possible.

SDS does allow one to create students and staff in containers, but those containers are not customisable. We make use of several settings that apply to specific age groups (e.g. turning Google+ off for the primary school pupils) and so having two uncustomisable containers is not helpful. To that extent, I’ve turned off the containers and have undertaken the task every once in a while to scan the root container for new users and move them into their respective folders. This is a reasonably easy task for us since the usernames start with the year of their matriculation and so finding the containers to put them in is easy.

The system is rather American-centric (which may or may not be fair) in that it assumes Google Apps domains will be based on districts and not individual schools. It also means that the naming of the classes is odd when faced with the South African education paradigm (SDS uses “Course, Period and Section” instead of “Subject, Grade and Class”). So while it is still possible for SDS to automatically create the distribution lists for each class, they seem to appear with strange names. But that is a minor consideration in the long run.

I did need to learn a thing or two about regular expressions and negative forward lookups. The groups that are created by SDS are all prefixed with the school’s name. I want SDS to be able to add and delete those groups to its heart’s content, but leave my other groups alone. This was achieved with an exclusion rule that uses a negative forward lookup regular expression.

As with GADS, exclusion rules are crucial. We have a number of dummy accounts that we use for testing things in Google which, of course, are not part of our “live” data and so we created a container for these users and excluded it from the synchronisation process.

There are fewer options in SDS than there are in the more established (and powerful) GADS, but with more schools moving away from local area networks, there are not always options when it comes to managing user accounts and, more importantly, the groups of pupils. SDS provides a useful solution, but perhaps one with a few shortcomings.