I’ve used Google Docs a bit in the past, as well as plenty of other Google services. Despite the hard time we librarians give Google, it really is a very nice company because it produces some great online tools … and lets everyone use them for free! Sure, we’d be happier if the students in our libraries used Google Simple Search a lot less and our subscription databases a lot more, but you have to give credit where it is due: a lot of things we do online would be more difficult without Google.
I’ve been looking at a lot of online tools for educators, and revisited Google for Educators and had a look at what Google itself recommends as Tools for your classroom. I’ve used most of these before, but I think it is worth a few comments about how they could be used by teachers, and how they can help me in my role as a newly-fledged librarian.
Google Book Search
Google’s mission to digitize every book ever published has been somewhat undermined by the poor people who sell books to keep food on their tables – book publishers. OK, most of them aren’t exactly poor, but many of them have reacted strongly to the idea of making books freely available online. A group of publishers has been suing Google about it, and a few changes have been forced. It’s now a lot harder to find a full text on Google Books, but it is still possible to search the text of a book – as long as it’s one of the limited titles Google is allowed to search. Google continues to negotiate, and sees part of its role as a link between readers and libraries, or between readers and publishers. The latest state of play can be examined here.
Google Geo Education
Four well-loved apps (Google Earth, Google Sky, Google Maps, and Google Sky) have been brought together to provide a suite of tools with a wide range of applications for geography, science, history literature and maths teachers. There is a classroom ideas section, and a community forum. The extensions of some of these tools extend the possibilities to every subject and teaching area – e.g. Google Art Project, a mashup of Street View, Maps, and images from major galleries and museums around the world.
There are plenty of news-based search engines. Google is one of the best because of its vast coverage. When combined with other tools, such as Google Docs, the news site, with its extensive archive, and customisable alerts, is a great resource for research and classroom activities.
This is a way to collect content from all over the web and display it on a single page. It could even be used as a presentation tool, with each element embedded in a separate widget. By customising the theme, iGoogle could even be used as a home page – although the content is really only visible to the Google account holder, so it presents a view of the web to one person (or one small team or activity group), rather than being a public front page for something like a library.
Custom Search Engine
This is a great tool for teachers and librarians, and can be used anywhere a widget can be embedded: intranet, blog, OPAC, etc. CSEs can be configured to search only specified sites for particular content: even the way the results are displayed can be customised.
This sort of tool is becoming more common. It’s a way to grab information from several sites, annotate it, and keep it together for a later visit. Personally, I prefer Evernote, which does the same thing, but automatically sync’s to my laptop, phone and online account. I can also add a voice recording or webcam clip to Evernote. The advantage of Google Notebook is that it’s easier to share content with other users.
Picnik is one of those annoying names that makes me think I’ve made an error every time I type it! Fortunately, I don’t think I’m likely to need to type it often. It’s an online photo editing site, a bit like Picasa for Kids. It looks easy to use and will pull images from Flickr and other photo sharing sites to save uploading them. It has lots of built-in templates and special effects – a good enough reason to give it a miss, in my opinion.
This is a more robust, more grown-up image editing and storage utility. It can be used as a desktop application for cataloguing and editing photos, and the Web Albums make it easy to share images online.
Google Apps Education Edition
Google offers an integrated package for schools. Each school can choose from Gmail, Google Talk (instant messaging), Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Sites (simple website creation), and create a customised institution-wide deployment of these apps. I’ve worked in a big school that replaced their dedicated mail server with Gmail – it worked well from day one, and allowed integration with Docs and Calendar (which are embedded into various parts of the intranet). I really don’t understand why so many schools insist on struggling with an Exchange server when Gmail provides such a simple solution at no cost. Maybe they think it is more secure to run their own mail server? Maybe they still put out milk and cookies for Santa, too. At my old school, we had hassle-free Gmail accounts for a couple of years, and in the single term at a new school, Exchange mail was down for up to a few hours – at least twice. Hmmm …