Heads in the Cloud 55

Over the last couple of years, the term “Cloud Computing” has been buzzing around in the techie world.  Inevitably, it buzzes into the education world at some point.  And yes, it’s starting to cause a bit of a stir.  Today a principal from Co. Meath impressed me greatly when he suggested that another of his colleagues try it out. So what is cloud computing and why should Irish schools care?

Simply put, cloud computing allows you to log on to a computer somewhere in the world and use its applications, often for free. A number of companies offer a cloud computing service, most famously, Google with their Google Apps. Google Apps allows users to use fully functioning word processors, spreadsheets, presentation software, email, calendars, web design software, chat, video sharing and lots more for free! All you need is an Internet connection and a school.

Little did I know, but I had been using cloud computing in two schools before I’d even heard of the term.  Right now, my school uses cloud computing through Google apps as a communication tool for all staff and board of management.  I thought it might be interesting for other principals to see how we’ve incorporated it in our school in the hope that it might inspire others to do the same.  I’ve also added some other ideas at the end.

1.  Noticeboard

We no longer use a noticeboard in the staffroom as all staff log into our Google site from anywhere in the world and the first thing they see is our ‘virtual’ noticeboard and a staff calendar, which outlines what’s going on over the next few days.

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All staff can add events to the staff calendar or add announcements on the Virtual Noticeboard.  Although we are a small school, there are, on average, 4-5 announcements made each week.  These range from reminders about meetings to announcements about new resources.  Teachers often post up announcements that they have uploaded new resources to our resource sharing section.  The calendar also gets used for smaller events that don’t generally make it on to traditional staffroom noticeboards.  For example, people can see who’s gone on EPV days, if the principal (me) is at a meeting or if a psychologist is in.  Another cool feature of the “Announcements” section is the ability for staff to comment.  For example, last week I made an announcement on the site asking staff which week they would prefer parent-teacher meetings and gave a date to answer by.  50% of the staff left a comment on the site and the dates were chosen.

2. Plans and Policies

I always had an issue with the traditional school plans and policies folders.  I never felt that they were alive and therefore rarely used them.  I always got the feeling that they were only ever taken out around the time of a WSE and then weren’t really used apart from that.  As I trained in the UK, the school plan was a lot more structured and essentially was a yearly plan (in some cases a termly plan) for all teachers.  However, I still felt that even though this was a step in the right direction, they were rarely updated and could become stagnant after a couple of years.  Putting plans and policies on Google Apps allows them to become colaborative documents.

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Staff can have full control of reading and editing school plans on the fly thanks to Google Apps’ in-built Word Processor, Google Docs.  Even better, two or three members of staff can be working on a particular school plan at the same time on different computers.  Google Docs automatically updates the document every few seconds so real time changes can be seen by everyone working on it.  This allows our plans to be more alive and, most importantly, used.

3. Reporting

I’d imagine many schools have a principal with a head like a sieve.  Often I’m asked to do several things by several people and reminded to do several other things by several other people.  I usually remember one or two.  Most organised principals have a number of reporting books.  So, if someone injures themselves on yard, they fill a report in an incident book.  If someone finds a plug loose in their classroom, they might fill in an entry into a caretaker’s book.  If someone wants the school to order resources, there might be a resource ordering book.  In my school, we use Google Forms.  It’s a really really easy application, which allows staff to fill out pre-designed forms to report any of the above.  Below is a screenshot of our Incident Report Form.

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When a staff member fills out the incident report form, they click on a Submit button.  That’s when the magic happens.  The form is automatically saved into a spreadsheet file along with any other incidents that have been reported.  If I need to, I can print out this file for a hard copy or I can easily refer to the incident by searching the document.  The use of forms in my cloud has been one of the most successful things in our school.  Great things I didn’t expect to come out of it is the complete ease of ordering reources.  Every month, my secretary makes an announcement that she’s going shopping and we need to fill in our order resource form.  A few days later, she goes shopping.  Throughout the rest of the month, if I think of something I need, I fill out the form and it will get ordered.

4. Roll Book

My favourite function of my cloud is our electronic roll book.  I absolutely hate our archaic roll book.  It is the bane of most teacher’s lives and the reason teachers don’t leave school until tea time on the last day of the school year.  So, I “electronified” it! Every teacher can now log on to a virtual rollbook from the home page and type in the attendance for the day. Because Google Apps allows multiple users to use the same document at the same time, they can open the same roll book at any time and it doesn’t matter, even if 5 other teachers are using it.

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I simply created a spreadsheet using Google Spreadsheets at the beginning of the year, and like a real rollbook, teachers simply type in a “1″ for attendence and a “0″ for an absense.  I added a couple of other features to make it even more useful.  If someone is late but not too late to be absent, the teacher can mark them in the rollbook with a “1″ but colour codes it red.  Therefore, I can have a glance at a child’s attendence record and if there’s lots of red number ones, I can chat to parents about punctuality.  The only downside is that we still have to fill in the real roll book.  Rather than individual teachers doing this too, the virtual roll book is opened by a delegated member of staff at the end of her day and transferred into the real rollbook. The upshot of this is that the virtual rollbook does all the tallying and balances the books at the end of each section of the year so until the department wake up and stop making us fill in a big old book, it’s not a bad pay off.

5. Staff Meetings

“Will you stick x on the agenda please?” is an often forgotten job, which can lead to disgruntled staff members.  In my school, if a staff member wants to add something to the staff meeting, we have a “live” agenda document which can be added to by anyone.  A few days before the meeting, the document is “closed” and the agenda is set.

6.  Learning Support

I have found the “cloud” one of the best things for Learning Support.  One of my aims of Learning Support was to have weekly booster sessions for children who might not have grasped a concept during class, for whatever reason.  I wanted to free up a 15 minute session for 5 days so the support staff could teach that concept to get them back in the fold.  Sometimes a child doesn’t need a long period of Learning Support so this was ideal.  However, it would be almost impossible to manage without my cloud.

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If a teacher feels that a child (or small group of children) require a boost in a certain area of the curriculum, they can book a “catch-up session”.  This involves them filling out a simple form.  The Learning Support team then “grab” and book a particular session for a particular week.  The teacher can then, at a glance, see when their child will be given this session.  It works on a first come first served basis.  It’s working really really well in my school.

Another cool thing for our Learning Support team is to have access to any of our assessment results.  Our Micra-T and Sigma-T results can be seen in a table so that we can pinpoint and prioritise who will be allocated Learning Support.

7. Cúntas Míosúil

I have posted about this electronic Cúntas Míosúil on Anseo.net before and it is also available on the IPPN web site.  However, I have now incorporated it into our cloud.  Staff can now update their Cúntas Míosúil on the fly and we can check them out at a glance, which is pretty cool!

8. School Web Site

Our award winning school web site is based on WordPress, a content management system.  In my opinion, it is one of the easiest and most powerful web design tools available.  Oh, and it’s free.  I’ve been writing for years about why schools need to stop designing static web sites and move over to more dynamic ones.  For me the key is that anyone can update the web site from any computer with an Internet connection.  My school web site is updated by staff and pupils.  My next aim is to get parents involved too!  You can read my article: “Why Blogging is best” for lots more information.

Because we are an educational establishment, Google Apps is free! It doesn’t matter how old our computers are as long as they can connect to the Internet. By using the “cloud”, we have loads of applications and we don’t really need any office software.

So what about non-administration stuff?  What about resources or software or teaching tools?  Step two in our plan is our thin-client network set up in the school. This involved buying a pretty good server and lots of really cheap PCs which all run through the server. We’ve put in place plans to upload every CD and DVD in the school on to this server so that a teacher no longer needs to worry about finding a piece of music or a particular video clip. All our software is also going to be uploaded to avoid CD breakages.

Another great thing about this setup is our ability to share. If I open up my IWB software, I can access anyone else’s lessons because it’s all stored in one place. Likewise, if I create a flipchart, I can upload it to the server for the other teachers. This is nothing special as all schools can do this over a normal network. However, by giving our teachers remote access to our server, effectively they can access our very own cloud from the comfort of their homes.

I see the future of schools in the cloud.  We’re already floating around in it and are seeing great benefits to our communication and overall effectiveness.  We are also saving a hell of a lot of money due to these services being completely free.  I’d love to hear about other schools using cloud computing or other clever ways of using Google Apps.   We’ve reached a point in computing where schools need not be spending lots of money on equipment or even maintenence.  All we need now is faster Internet connections! :)