Peter Marshall and Dan LeightonPeter Marshall and Dan LeightonCould a free Google service handle all a school's communications and office software needs? The answer appears to be yes, and very well too. And, after hearing about the experience of Cottenham Village College near Cambridge, other schools are likely to follow suit. The savings could be massive.

The secondary school installed the company's Google Apps Education Edition (email and a range of other powerful online software tools) over two days and the school community signed on within a month. Pupils, teachers and parents are happy and impressed. Deputy head and director of ICT Peter Marshall, pictured above with key stage 4 ICT co-ordinator Dan Leighton, 'guesstimates' an immediate saving of possibly £20,000 but says that the most impressive gain is having an easy-to-use, mission-critical service that delivers the expectations students and teachers have of modern technology.

His message to school leaders? "I think they need to seriously take on board just how significant effectiveness and reliability are to running the things that you want to run in schools. Teachers are a notoriously fickle bunch - if it doesn’t work they don’t want to do it twice. What we love about this is that it is fast, it is reliable, it does what it says and it's easy. That brings with it a massive set of benefits. I can’t see why schools wouldn’t want to do it."

Could Google scale up to deal with an upsurge of school interest? "Absolutely," says Jeff Keltner, business development manager for Google Apps for Education in the USA. "If you came to me with 10 million students tomorrow I might have a little problem, but if you give me a month I am not worried about it."

"When we went out to run we had to build an infrastructure that scales,,, To do that we built a very unique environment and it scales very easily and we are quite ready to handle millions or tens of millions... that’s not a concern to us at all."

Google to handle pupils data? Perhaps

Jeff KeltnerJeff KeltnerJeff Keltner was talking at an education 'breakfast' at the company's London Googleplex HQ. When asked whether Google was interested in handling school and pupil data - currently the province of companies like Capita - he replied "Maybe". However, he stressed that its first priority was to provide schools with first-class collaborative tools which they could use to build their own platforms for learning and teaching. His colleague, Samantha Peter, who covers education for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, revealed that Google has been talking to local authorities.

The implications for UK education of schools signing up to Google are enormous, as they are for many of the companies currently selling email, communications and office software to schools. Government ICT agency Becta has already been to Cottenham on a fact-finding visit.

Universities are also succumbing to Google's charms. Also at the breakfast were staff from Leeds Metropolitan University. dean of partnerships for schools Barbara Colledge outlined her college's switch to Google. The move was populare with staff and students she said, and the cost of developing a similar service would approach £1 million she said. "But we could never provide the consistent innovation that Google can," she added.

From Sweden's Linkoping University, chief information officer Joakin Nejdeby explained how all 26,000 Linkoping students now have access to Google Apps, saving 1 million Swedish Krona (£81,900) so far. The first choice they came to was to go with Microsoft or Google, he said. They went with Google because the Microsoft service had advertising. The advertising was dropped and this time the preference of the students was for Google.

Joakin Nejdeby said that the decision was taken after lengthy consideration and legal advice which recommended that they should not carry out a procurement but consider the Google service as a gift,

Google integrated with Moodle for lessons

The Cottenham experience is likely to be extremely appealing to other schoolsa. Dan Leighton said the priority was for teaching and learning and to keep teachers and learners away from technology that obstructed them or held them back. There was no down side to working with Google, he said, just a wish list. At the top of this was a desktop publisher and tools to improve working with groups. They were increasingly using alongside Moodle which was being used to handle the teaching and learning side of things. (Jeff Keltner stressed that Google was committed to integrating its Apps with whatever other systems a school used.)

Dan Leighton's obvious enthusiasm and satisfaction was matched by Peter Marshall, who added: "Computer ownership per pupil is really high and really fast broadband is commonplace now with students, but actually office applications are not terribly well adopted at home. They don’t keep up, they don’t like buying them. Parents really struggle with that extra cash. That [Google] is a huge enabler and it levels the playing field among our students. We love that.'

He welcomed the innovation that Google continued to bring to the project: "We loved to see Google Sites coming on the other day. We are such a huge leap away from where we were a year ago. For us its unimaginable to step back to the services we were using, for we’ve got something now which is a professional quality. Staff and students alike enjoy using it. It provides the kind of experience which they expect, because its what they get when they are home and they log on to Hotmail or whatever - or Google!"

Chat facilities used to support students at home

Students and pupils were also using chat facilities to communicate inside and outside school, he sad. Robust policies meant that it was not abused. Dan Leighton explained that teachers were using it to support students when they were working at home. If the teachers were already working online it did not make much difference to their workload, and it certainly saved them more work further down the line by improving the quality of students' work.

The system had also increased parental interest in their children's work, and their involvement in the school's website through features like calendars they could interact with.

The most impressive aspects of Google Apps were its fitness for purpose, ease of use and reliability, said Peter Marshall. "It was out of the box, it really was, Two days from set-up to finish. We didn’t need technical skills." To do something server-based they would normally need technical people, technical support, training and expensive licences, "and it wouldn’t work at home and it wouldn’t work on their mobiles and they [staff and studends] wouldn’t like it but it would tick loads of boxes. What I like about this is that you ask for it, and they provide it. It works, it's easy to learn, easy to administer, and we also like the fact that it’s free."

Learning platform policy could be affected

There were also implications for the government's learning platform policy, he concluded. "Its an interesting time. The pressure on people in my position is very marked. Generally I have not come across any colleagues who know what this will mean in the next two to three years. And there are very few companies out there who pretend to have an answer...

"We will need to provide real time reporting to parents, a range of new services and a great deal more than we are doing already. Should the government’s expectation drive our use of these technologies? I don’t think so. I think what we’ve got to do stand back and ask what is useful in terms of teaching and learning, and where are the real benefits. And if that means we don’t quite meet the deadline then we don’t quite meet the deadline.

"Our parents like what were doing here. They like the fact that they can email in, that they can share their students' work, and we are handing out accounts o a growing number of parents and governors. We’ll cherry pick - we want to work with these guys to make it this good and this easy."

More information

More on Google Apps Education Edition

Google UK Schools

Jeff Keltner

Cottenham Village College