Moving to Google Apps
In the early months of 2013, I made a daring move at my school, I made the move to Google Apps for Education. It proved to be a very big change for the staff and faculty; a change that we are still working through today (about one and a half year later). However, the change was a beneficial and necessary one. Here is our story.
Our change to Google Apps for Education was motivated primarily by a desire on my part to improve our email structure/system that had been in place for too many years. Nearly 15 years prior, before web-based email really had gotten started, we were providing our staff with email accounts (pop3 accounts) through our web host and individually configuring Outlook Express on user machines. At the time this was a first, so it was accepted as a great solution, for the staff.
At one point during this stretch virus were running rampant and a number of user machines were infected, causing mail to be sent out through their Outlook Express accounts. I quickly realized that another solution was necessary, so I went to a web-based email solution where users were using the SquirrelMail through their web browsers in order to read/send email. This allowed me to easily deploy new email accounts, and provided the users with the ease of getting their email from anywhere.
From the perspective of the staff and faculty, this is the system we used for nearly 10 years, however unbeknownst to them, I had teetered between externally-hosted and internally-hosted mail solutions. I switched to the latter to save money, but it quickly became evident how time consuming it was to maintain an mail server. I had a hard time dealing with spam and extra features that became commonplace (e.g. vacation messages). Part of the difficulty was my own desire to stick with a linux box for my solution, rather than utilize Microsoft solutions ($$).
In, or about, 2009, I began offering some other nice web-mail solutions to the staff as an alternative to SquirrelMail. I gave them access to RoundCube and Horde. Some, along with me, took the RoundCube route, because it had a nice clean interface. Few took the bite on Horde. After a few a years, though, I became excited about the applications that could be integrated through Horde, so I spent a significant amount of time setting up Horde to be used by all. In the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year I informed the staff that they had a year to get used to Horde, because it would be the only package available for their use. They could continue to use SquirrelMail and RoundCube, but I encouraged them to start making the switch so that they felt comfortable enough with Horde once we made the switch.
I pulled the plug on SquirrelMail and RoundCube in August, 2012. It was like I dropped a bomb on the school. There was such an uproar from the staff; one I had never experienced. I stood my ground, though, knowing that it was best for the staff to be using an integrated package such as Horde; a package that we could use to share calendars, address books, etc. However, it couldn’t compete with the free Gmail accounts some folks were acquiring though, so it paled in comparison. Meanwhile, some users refused to let me forget how dear SquirrelMail was to their heart and many couldn’t seem to handle the new application. It was a very busy and tiring fall and winter for this Technology Coordinator.
After six months of maintaining, training, and complaining, I decided I needed a solution for which I didn’t have to work so hard. I knew training would always be an issue, but I knew I had to find a solution that could limit maintenance and might decrease complaints. I embarked on a hunt for a paid solution, but each I came across was far too costly and was either still providing the same web-mail applications I had used, or required hosting on my internal network. Then, I stumbled upon Google Apps for Education.
I was a bit hesitant at first about going with Google; their reputation for privacy was not the greatest. However, I was later convinced this was the solution after reading and hearing about some other success stories from other schools’ technology personnel. So, I applied for a Google Apps for Education account, we were approved, and I began the transition. I wasted no time.
I announced the change to the staff shortly after I had accounts setup and began helping them make the change. Some were a little put off that I was forcing another change on them, however, most embraced the change (either that or they lost the will to complain). In just a short month, most users had already taken to Gmail as their mail package. Though a handful of staff still took the opportunity to communicate how they missed SquirrelMail, this noise was drowned out by the excitement of many to have a better email experience. The end of the school year was approaching, staff had their Gmail accounts rolling, almost everyone was happy, but I wasn’t done.
One of the other technology provisions I had made for my staff over the years was a networked folder (home folder) that they could use to save their files. When I had first started at the school, each computer was an island. I quickly found the need to transform the structure into a Active Directory-based domain network that I could centrally manage. After a few years pulling what was left of my hair out over roaming profiles and large data transfers during login/logouts, I moved everyone to home folders for their file storage needs. This was great at first, but increasingly over the years, individuals wanted access to their files at home. I came up with a few creative solutions that satisfied many for a little while, but I knew a better solution was needed. In addition, storage and backups were becoming a huge problem as well. Enter Google Drive.
I jumped on Google Drive as soon as I could. I informed the teachers (not office-staff) that during the next school year they would no longer have access to their home folders. Instead, we would be using Google Drive. I installed the Google Drive app on their classroom computers and they were given the task of transferring what they wanted from their home folder to their Google Drive (at that point we had a 5GB limit and a few users had a little more than this in their home folders). In August, 2013 I pulled the plug on their home folders, and since then they’ve been using their Google Drive to store files.
During the 2013-2014 school year we limped along with Google Drive, and most handled the change quite fine. We did not have the opportunity to do a significant amount of training, for I had actually introduced a more significant change during that year. I attempted to introduce various features of Google Drive, such as the sharing of files, by publicly using the features myself. Some caught on, but the majority did not. Our new Head Master and I also pushed Google Drive and the use of Google Docs as we collectively worked on accreditation documents during that year. However, again, the majority didn’t catch the significance of what we were promoting.
The 2014-2015 school year just began, so we are starting to focus more on Google Drive. We will be focusing on the sharing aspect, how to create documents within, and how to collaborate. We have also introduced shared calendars, through Google Calendar, and many are actually more excited about this than I initially thought. In fact, I’m finding I have to slow some down; focusing more on best practices, rather than use.
It began a bumpy ride, but I am excited about the future. We have since started distributing accounts, albeit Gmail-less, to our students. I would like to see the teachers start integrating the use of Google Apps into their teaching, organization, and communication with students, so we will be offering some professional development to this end. I will also be testing a Chromebook pilot program with my AP CS students with an eye toward providing our students with a device built specifically to leverage the power of online applications such as Google Apps. I’ll let you know how it goes.