Douglas Blane visits East Lothian, an influential Scottish authority doing important work with Google
David GilmourEast Lothian's David GilmourIf there’s one person who knows what works and doesn't work for teachers it’s the ICT expert in an education authority who takes their calls for help when things go wrong.

“It’s the big difference I’ve found since we introduced Google Apps for Education in all our schools,” says East Lothian’s David Gilmour. “I’m not getting endless emails from teachers saying ‘We’ve got so far and now we’re stuck.’ It's really striking. They're taking the tools, learning to use them immediately and doing useful things with them.”

A free suite of tools for creativity, collaboration and communication – within one school or across many – Google Apps for Education has email, calendar, instant messaging, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, website creation and video hosting and sharing.

Dozens of other free apps, from email alerts to website optimisers, and even a fully-functioned graphics calculator, can also be readily accessed and used by teachers and pupils.

Both the software that runs the applications and the documents that teachers and pupils create with them reside "in the cloud" – on Google's servers – rather than on local computers. "We first made these tools available to all our teachers over three years ago," David says. "So we've built a fair bit of experience.

Preston Lodge High School uses Google Apps and is testing Chromebooks

"The most popular tools, we've found, are docs and sites – websites that people can create and maintain with no more than word-processing skills. Let's go and talk to the teachers at Preston Lodge High, where they've been using Google Apps a lot. They've also just taken delivery of 40 Chromebooks, so we can hear about them too."

For one of Scotland's smallest authorities, East Lothian has had a disproportionate influence on ICT in Scottish education, not least through the culture of innovation and sharing created initially by Don Ledingham, now director of education, and nurtured and developed in particular by three former teachers – David Gilmour, Ollie Bray and Ewan McIntosh – all of whom have featured in this website's Innovators series.

Preston LodgePreston Lodge: using Google Apps and ChromebooksFearghal Kelly, principal teacher of biology at Preston Lodge is a good candidate for future inclusion, having taught in Namibia with VSO and in Buckinghamshire before moving to East Lothian, where he was curriculum development officer for a year and a half, before returning to the classroom. He is the creator of Pedagoo, the highly regarded website by teachers for teachers.  

In his biology lab at Preston Lodge, Fearghal talks about cloud computing, easy access and pedagogical potential. "If you have five computers for a class of 20, you can get them working in groups. But they don't collaborate well. They take turns. So you end up with a large number of people not participating."

The beauty of Google Apps combined with one computer per pupil – which Chromebooks might in time deliver (see below, and "Google steps up help for schools looking for savings") – is that collaboration becomes easy, Fearghal says. "So if they're using Google docs or sites, a group of kids can all be working on the same document at the same time."

This is a key benefit of Google Apps, David explains, and one with enormous potential for collaboration and creativity, not just within a school but across an authority. "It's the same thinking that led to East Lothian's eduBuzz online community, which we set up in 2005."  

With the benefits of sharing across an authority clearly demonstrated by six years' productive experience, David and his colleagues took the crucial decision to depart in East Lothian from what seemed to be the prevailing model for implementation of Google Apps, he says.

"Schools, colleges and universities all seemed to be setting up one installation per institution," he says. "But to us that would have reinforced the divisions between schools we'd been busy breaking down. So we've gone for one domain for the authority, with no mapping between individual teachers and schools. So staff can work together across schools and if a teacher moves within East Lothian all their online stuff stays with them."

Guardian's Charles Arthur crowd-sources articles on Google Apps

One example that lets teachers quickly grasp the potential of collaborative working on documents comes from the media, David says. "A [Guardian] technology journalist called Charles Arthur had been given a commission at lunchtime to write a comparative review for that evening of tablet computers.

"He created a Google spreadsheet with one computer to each row and columns for cost, screen-size, battery-life, etc. He then opened it for public edit, went on twitter and asked for help. I followed the link ten minutes after he tweeted and the spreadsheet was filling up in front of my eyes, with about 40 people working on it at the same time. He easily met his tight deadline."

The contrast with how teachers traditionally collaborate is stark, David says. "That difference grabs staff. To do something like that, each would write an email with the information they had, which would be sent to the central person, who would pull it all together and fire out emails to everybody asking for their comments.

"Very soon you have many different versions of the same document flying around. Collaborating on one document is far better."

Another nice example of apps in action involves the pupils, says Preston Lodge depute headteacher Calum Stewart. "My daughter, who's in first year at another school, had been taught to use Google docs in craft, design and technology lessons, and decided to have a go for a geography ski project.

She was writing a script for a TV programme, he explains. "I watched her working on it one night with her friends, who were in their homes too, all communicating through editing and instant messaging. It was amazing. We talk a lot in education about transferable skills. This was one time I actually saw it in action."

'Forms' a powerful tool for teachers to poll students

One of the most interesting and least obvious ways of using Google Apps, Fearghal says, is to get detailed and – if each pupil has access to an online computer at the time – instant feedback from a whole class. "So you go into Google docs and create something called a Form," he demonstrates, pulling up one he prepared earlier. "This is a survey of how my pupils use computers at home and in school.

"I prepared the form with questions like: 'How often do you use computers, what for, and how skilled would you rate yourself?' They pulled it up on their computers and answered the questions. I then used the app software to create comparative charts of their answers."

Once the form is prepared the process is so fast that it can function as an interactive voting system, David points out. "Or you could embed it in the school website and survey the parents. A class might use it to generate data that interest them for maths problems. There's no end to what you can do.

"Since we started using Google Apps for Education across East Lothian I've noticed that when you show teachers how to do something they go, 'I can do that.'"

It's a reaction that's not confined to teachers, Fearghal says. "One of the most amazing things about all this is that once you've got the kids their logins and shown them where to go, that's the training. It's so intuitive. They just do it."

Hello browser, goodbye desktop! Getting to grips with Chromebooks

ChromebookChromebook: light and cheapChromebooks take a bit of getting used to, says Preston Lodge depute headteacher Calum Stewart, opening one of the slim-looking laptops in Fearghal Kelly's classroom at Preston Lodge High. "They're designed entirely for the web, so when they're not online they don't do anything. You keep wanting to minimise the browser and go to the desktop. But there is no desktop."

A user customises the Chromebook by going to the Google apps store and choosing free applications to download, Calum explains. "There are a whole range of those. The other nice feature is you can tell the kids to do this anytime in a lesson," he says, closing the Chromebook firmly. "So you can talk to them without distraction."

"You wouldn't do that with a normal laptop because of the time it takes to start up again," says David Gilmour. "With this you open the lid and away you go again. It's fast."

Slimmed-down and designed for the web the Chromebook might be, but at around £350 it's not obviously cheaper than a low-end laptop. "That depends how you count the cost," David says.

"Google's argument is that to use a conventional PC in school you also need to pay for Office, anti-virus, some kind of central management system for software, the professional version of Windows with a client access licence, and a small army of technical support with cars.

"When you add all that up, they say, the current price of the Chromebook begins to look very competitive. And the more popular they become the cheaper they are likely to get."

More information

David Gilmour on edubuzz 
David Gilmour on Twitter – @dgilmour 
Preston Lodge High School, East Lothian      
Google for Educators – Apps for Education
Chromebooks for Education and Business

BETT logoBETT 2012, January 11-14
Olympia, London
Google: stand E70

Douglas BlaneDouglas Blane is a journalist and teacher. He runs his own Real Science website. You can follow him on Twitter.